Evidently, most convicts sent to the big house fantasize about doing time in Austria’s luxurious looking Justice Center Leoben, but not Bradley “Don’t Call Him Brad” Thomas. He is determined to be transferred to the maximum-security, pre-war Red Leaf hell-prison, as soon as possible. He has his reasons in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.
Thomas was an ex-boxer trying to make and honest and peaceful living, but the recession forced him to return to work as runner for his drug lord pal Gil. He could tell something was wrong with their new Latin American connection, but he does his duty, accompanying two jittery thugs on a multi-million-dollar run. When things go sideways, Thomas wastes his cartel companions to save the drastically out-gunned cops. Of course, he is still sentenced to serious time, but at least it is a medium security facility.
On his second day, Thomas gets a visit from the mysterious “Placid Man” pretending to be his mega-pregnant wife Lauren’s OBGYN. In reality, he is a representative of the cartel, who holds him responsible for the loss of their shipment. They have kidnapped Lauren and will do awful things to her unborn baby unless he murders Christopher Bridge in Red Leaf’s hardcore Cell Block 99. To get there, he will have to be transferred twice, once from the more livable Franklin and then again into the subterranean dungeon. That will require a lot of bad behavior, but Thomas has the skills and the fortitude.
Brawl is one of the grittiest prison movies in years that deliberately evokes a 1970s vibe with its tunes and muscle cars. It doesn’t give you much faith in rehabilitation or the criminal justice system in general. Warden Tuggs and the Red Leaf guards definitely count as bad guys, but they are not even the worst of the worst. Regardless, just about everyone at Red Leaf deserves whatever comes their way, except for Thomas and maybe the inmate across the hall, who looks like Julian Richings.
About the last time Vince Vaughn had a stretch of serious dramas going was the late 1990s, when he appeared in the Malaysian prison drama, Return to Paradise. It was a good move for him to step away from wise-guy comedy and return to the prison setting, because Brawl is without question his best work in years. He is quietly intense, but his visceral physicality says plenty.
Don Johnson adds some southern fried villainy as the sadistic warden. He has probably reached the point of type-casting, but to his credit, Tuggs is less cliched and more realistic than his racist plantation owner in Django Unchained or the Joe Arpaio caricature in Machete (but sadly, he is nowhere near as flamboyant as good old Jim Bob Luke in Cold in July). Jennifer Carpenter also adds a bit depth and dimension as Lauren Thomas, which is impressive considering she mostly serves as the hostage-victim. For extra bonus points, Udo Kier brings his eccentric movie magic as the Placid Man.
Both Brawl and Zahler’s previous film Bone Tomahawk clocked in over two hours, which is ridiculous in both cases. Seriously, he has a good handle on genre elements, but he needs to work with a more assertive editor. Brawl is particularly slow out of the gates, but it pays off with more interest than Tomahawk. Recommended for fans of prison movies and 1970s throwbacks, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is now available on DVD and BluRay.