Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review (61st BFI London Film Festival)

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Vince Vaughn has noticeable change his acting tact in recent years with a focus more on maturing as an actor after a string of comedy hits that have put him in good stead. The likes of Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up and Dodgeball are the most notable of his “funny period” but with his success came more of the same, seeing him pigeon-holed as the same character over and over forcing a bit of stagnation. Those who have seen Unfinished Business, which was perhaps the tipping point, will attest to this for sure.

But Vaughn has been smart and decided that it’s time to branch out a little – his underrated (and somewhat underseen) work in True Detective 2 was the start and his excellent supporting turn in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge have started a different wheel turning but with Brawl in Cell Block 99 everything changes – Peter LaFleur is dead, long live Bradley Thomas (don’t call him Brad) for you will never watch Dodgeball the same after this one.

Here, he plays former boxer turned drugs runner Bradley who decides that with a baby on the way, he needs to provide more stable than before despite the inherent risks. Soon enough, however, a pick-up with Mexican cartel goes wrong and he finds himself back in prison only this time it’s far more serious – said cartel have begun to take their revenge on his family and their only way out is for him to be forcibly transferred to Cell Block 99 – an off-the-record hell for those most despicable – and to take out someone in the prison to set his wife and unborn child free.

After the success of his previous film Bone Tomahawk, a film that put the balls in cannibal, writer/director S. Craig Zahler goes one step beyond with Brawl and with it establishes himself as one of the most visually stimulating filmmakers of the new decade. Taking his queues from Grindhouse classics of the 70’s with a dash of Carpenter and Tarantino, Zahler’s excessive, brutal direction, made even starker by its monochromed camera, won’t be to everyone’s taste but to those with a penchant for such things will have a ball. Backed up by a truly heartfelt and stirring narrative, it both pulls at the heartstrings and showcases one man’s unstoppable desire to do the right thing, no matter the consequences for himself.

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Key to the success of Vaughn’s performance which is so stunning and unexpected that it’s no stretch to say that should the opportunity arise, awards could maybe follow. Granted, the film isn’t perhaps one that many Academy members will stick in their players but they should just for Vaughn’s tour-de-force of both raw emotion and balls of steel that is the best thing he has ever done (and we mean all-Psycho-sins-forgiven kind-of-good).

Indeed, its an added bonus (and welcome sight) that you can see Vaughn taking on each man as they come at him as Zahler puts you right in amongst the punches and mayhem as his star fully commits beyond what was probably expected. And we haven’t even mentioned the off-kilter turns by Don Johnson and Udo Kier – but we will let you discover them for yourself.

While it’s let down from the upper echelons of ratings by its overly-long runtime, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is stark, gritty, grimy and seedy in places but peel back the top layer for a rollicking good ride that balances thrills and pathos to brilliant effect. A proper cult-hit in the making.

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