Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is a film in which Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley, an auto mechanic with a streak of bad luck that ends him up in prison. After being fired from his job and coming home to find out that his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) was engaged in an affair Bradley takes stock of his life and decides to work for an old friend running drugs, just until they can afford a better life to start again. Fast forward eighteen months and his scheme worked, he has a strict system about his drug running and his efficiency has afforded the married couple a decent house along with a pregnancy that drives Bradley throughout the rest of the film.


However, since the title of the film is “Brawl in Cell Block 99” we know that the film has to take a downward turn, and it is quite the spiral of increasingly awful situations. It begins with Gil (Marc Blucas), Bradley’s drug running boss and friend, setting up a new business deal with a group of Mexican gangsters equally invested in the drug game. Bradley quickly assesses the men he is to work with on the next run and declines to work with one that he suspects is using, but Gil pulls him aside noting that the deal needs to go through for financial reasons and sweetens the deal for Bradley with a three month leave once his daughter is born. As you might expect, the deal goes awry when the runner that Bradley had pointed out earlier refuses to drop the drugs to be picked up later when the police arrive and a shootout blazes between them and the two henchmen from the Mexican gang.


Bradley intervenes and gets sent straight to prison for a seven year sentence. Once inside he’s met by a representative of the Mexican Cartel (though admittedly I’m not sure if they were meant to be representative of the Cartel specifically) who informs him of the massive net loss that his boss took because of the botched drug deal. He expects Bradley to set this straight by killing a marked target of the Cartel who’s locked away in the maximum security facility of Redleaf, in cell block 99. If he doesn’t kill the target, the associates of the Cartel leader, who had already kidnapped Bradley’s wife, will sever the limbs of his unborn child in such a way that the child will still live through the birthing process. Thus Bradley must become infamous enough to get placed in Redleaf, and then he must become even more deadly to work his way into Cell Block 99 to save his family.


Which brings me to the violence of the film. This film is cruel and it is brutal in its depictions of arm snapping and skull bashing grindhouse prison fighting genre action. I’d seen Zahler’s last film “Bone Tomahawk” a western horror film in which Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson are settlers besieged by a crude sect of Native Americans that brutalize those they take captive. I personally wasn’t a fan of that film, even though it had it’s merits in performances and cinematography. The senselessness and depressing void of morality that encompassed the film, especially its ending, wasn’t something I enjoyed. This film however, changes the tone in its ultimate notions of justice and victory. I won’t spoil anything regarding the final act, but it’s a much more satisfying film overall for me personally. You can definitely tell that this film is from the same filmmaker that gave us “Bone Tomahawk” though. Both films are quiet in nature until they burst with unchallenged sounds, startling the auditory senses. This story also puts our lead through many hurdles and hoops of suffering. As a former boxer in his youth Bradley came slightly more prepared to his round of unjust brutality than the settlers of “Bone Tomahawk” were for their suffering to come.


This film is an entertaining piece of genre fair, though not all will enjoy it. It’s not incredibly high on my list of favorites from 2017, but it was a unique offering for sure. Vince Vaughn effectively shows us a man backed up against a wall, fighting for his family’s freedom any way he can. Even if that means becoming a person that he doesn’t see himself as. There’s also a fun scenery chewing performance by Don Johnson as the final warden that Bradley faces. If you’re okay with extremely brutal violence and the grindhouse style of films, then you might enjoy this. If anything else it’s just another way to pass the time this winter.

Final Score: 2 snapped arms & a couple bashed-in skulls


Review: Hacksaw Ridge

‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is the true story of Desmond T. Doss’ actions during World War Two in which he volunteered for duty as a conscientious objector to serve as a medic on the battlefield. Doss was a seventh-day Adventist that held to his strong beliefs, particularly “Thou shalt not kill” and throughout the film we’re given context as to why someone that won’t even touch a rifle signed up for war. It essentially comes down to Doss’ unbreakable conviction, strong beliefs, and his downright Captain America-esque sense of duty.

This film comes to us from the original Mad Max himself, Mel Gibson. In truth this film is the perfect fertile ground for Gibson and a comeback to Hollywood barring his interest and acceptance back into the fold. Here is a tale that is an excellent example of the duopoly of American thought that Gibson himself exemplifies in his own work. It is a love affair between religious idealism and gratuitious violence in all its glory. Of the thrill of battle, and yet the horrors of war. Gibson’s film repertoire shows this in spades, from ‘Braveheart’ to ‘The Passion of The Christ’, to ‘The Patriot’ and back again Gibson loves to focus on characters that stick to their foundations- no matter the trials they are set to endure. This film is one where Gibson gets to have his cake and eat it too. There is a clear and foreboding sense of intensity from the first sequence shown so that we know beforehand of the terror our plucky protagonist will go through, whereby staying true to his convictions, salvation awaits on the battlefield as they say. While this film deserves at least an academy nomination, possibly even best picture or best director material, I’d be surprised if it came to pass as Gibson remains on Hollywood’s hit list for his sins of the past.

While the initial build up to the second half of the film, the part Gibson gleefully awaits, can be a bit “Aw Shucks” in its 1950’s idealism at times, the simmering underbelly of humanity’s capability of grisly horror lies consistently below that veneer. Although the film wanders close to cliche in certain moments the character of Doss is the anchor of the film, portrayed earnestly by Andrew Garfield, as his character grows on you with his insistence and true to himself charm. There are, however, moments when you’re left wanting just a little more to each character and the intracacies suggested within them. Doss’ courtship of Dorothy is almost too straightforward in its portrayal, this being the bit where the film wants you to become attached to our weaponless warrior, and for the most part- it works. The film doesn’t weigh itself down by doing so though as the American scenes of the film help to ground the audience for the hellfire that is to come.

The acting throughout the film was surprising, humorous, powerful, and well executed. Andrew Garfield surprised the hell out of me personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of his Peter Parker portrayal in the last set of ‘Spiderman’ films, but here Garfield can lean into that wide eyed enthusiam and benefit from those experiences as he never spreads it so thick that it becomes unwatchable, or even uninteresting. What sets his performance out here is his consistency throughout the film. The Character never breaks from what we would expect from him. It is an impressive role for the young actor and if he doesn’t get the oscar nod for this film he may be getting another shot with Scorsese’s upcoming ‘Silence’ as well. Hugo Weaving, as the father of Doss, wallows drunkenly in the cemetary of his long lost brothers in arms, and scours among his family with his own buried sorrow that came from his war. He is the source of Desmond’s deep seated morals against violence that we see in several flashbacks (including a fight between brothers that turns dark quickly) to give Desmond’s firm decisions context. Once we get to the bootcamp sequences the film opens up in scope as we’re introduced to his fellow soldiers to be. Sergeant, ‘Sarge’, Howell surprisingly portrayed by Vince Vaughn (An odd, but impressively solid choice for the character) doles out nicknames, barks orders through training sessions, and gives Desmond Hell once our protagonist is outed as a conscientious objector. The whole cast of Doss’ fellow soldiers are well rounded and feel realistic, a few of these men will likely get more roles off of their appearance here. Lastly Sam Worthington rounds out the cast with his performance as Captain Glover, a stern and unyielding leader who sometimes sounds a wee bit Australian. In all seriousness though his presence is a nice edge to compliment Vaughn’s marginally softer authority role.

Once the cast reaches the shores of Okinawa the film gears up for the slaughter to come. Save for ‘Saving Private Ryan’ this is likely the most brutal and unforgiving set of war sequences put on film. This half of the movie is where the film shines brightest. Throughout the chaos of battle, and the quiet moments of horror sparsed inbetween, Doss serves as a field medic and narrowly avoids the carnage sweeping around him as he hauls wounded soldiers to makeshift operating tables in the dirt. Here we find an unflinching look at war and what it can do to a man, how it scatters a team, how fear can grasp once proud men and shatter them to pieces. It is a stark and bleak view that may halt a few moviegoers considering signing up for duty. Once the need for a retreat is obvious the group climbs back down the shear cliff of Hacksaw Ridge we find our hero Doss alone and finally asking of God “What do you want of me?” and in turn a wounded soldier cries out for a medic from the smoke and fog of war. Once Doss has his mission he brazenly runs back into the hellfire of falling bombs and missiles to drag his men to the cliff and then lower them with a makeshift rope and pulley system. In the end he saved roughly 75 men by himself. After rejoining with the survivors Doss and company raid the Ridge in one last glorious romp through the trenches. Here Gibson make use of unique camera shots and choices that revel in the glory of battle as kinetic energy sweeps across the screen while the men fight on to take Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa Japan.

In the end this a solid war film with a lot going for it. While there is clearly a religious influence inert in the main characters motivations it is never pressed upon to the point of revulsion for anyone not agreeing with the notion. It is a respectful motivation that is just as earnest as Doss himself was. Everything from the pace to the color palette is well considered and contemplated. The action is expertly directed and shot. All in all, if this sort of movie appeals to you, you’ll likely fall in love with this flick.

Final Score: 4.8/5