A former mechanic-turned-drug runner (Vince Vaughn) lands in a prison battleground after a deal gets deadly. While there, he's ordered to kill a fellow inmate or his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and his unborn child will be murdered.
The career trajectory of Vince Vaughn is a fascinating one, to say the least. It's hard to draw a line between amiable comedies like Swingers and Wedding Crashers to his work on the second season of True Detective or in this. Yet, watching Brawl In Cell Block 99 and seeing Vaughn break bones and crush skulls - literally, by the way - it's as if he was meant nothing else. In fact, in the opening five or ten minutes of the film, we see him break apart his wife's car with his bare hands - before he goes inside to calmly discuss their failing relationship and how things must change for them to work.
Comparisons have been made by director S. Craig Zahler and Quentin Tarantino, but if anything, he has more in common with Walter Hill or John Carpenter. The film is filled with archetypes - Vaughn is the strong and silent type, Don Johnson's Warden Tuggs is a brutal sadist, Mustafa Shakir is a hard-edged prison guard, Jennifer Carpenter is the damsel-in-distress - because that's only what the film requires. It's essentially a modern grindhouse movie, and has the gratuitous violence and clear narrative to prove it. You don't really need to know why the titular Cell Block 99 is hidden away, or even how it's allowed to stay open when it clearly couldn't exist in the real world.
Vaughn's performance is electric, and is able to portray seething rage underneath a glacially calm exterior. The ever-reliable Don Johnson is perfectly cast as the oily, cigarillo-smoking Tuggs whilst Udo Kier makes a brief appearance as a besuited gangster who speaks so placidly about brutalising a child that it's really quite chilling. In fact, there's so many moments in the film that either have you reaching for a sick bag, recoiling in disgust or - if you're a gorehound - cheering with glee. S. Craig Zahler's utilitarian direction flies in the face of his overly stylised dialogue, but it works when heard and seen in context of the film.
The film operates on a simplistic, black-and-white scale that doesn't really bear further thinking. In fact, if you start to look closely at Brawl In Cell Block 99, you get the sneaking suspicion that's there's something truly ugly underneath the surface. For example, Vaughn's character is clearly some kind of closeted racist, telling one Mexican gangster that the American flag isn't "red, white and burrito" before he kills in a comically graphic fashion. However, he's earlier described by one police officer as someone who possesses "a moral compass," and is "a patriot" for having more than one flag on his property. Whether this is S. Craig Zahler's way of commenting on how inherently violent and racist American society generally is remains unclear, but it's troubling nonetheless.
Still, that's only there if you want to look at it - and Brawl In Cell Block 99 is gory enough to make a lasting impact and earn itself the rightful title of future cult classic.