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Brawl in Cell Block 99

Year: 2017
Production Co: Assemble Media
Director: S Craig Zahler
Writer: S Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughan, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier

Someone became convinced Vince Vaughan could be a plausible badass action hero in the Jason Statham vein. It might be the most genius movie casting in a long time... but it might not.

Whether you think so or not is open to interpretation – his fighting style might be described as stiff, disciplined and unyielding like the ex-boxer he's supposed to be, or it might remind you of a grandpa who used to be a boxer and has chucked his walking frame away to show some punk who's boss.

But Vaughan is famously a very tall man, and he does look appropriately dangerous with his shaved, tattooed pate and icy staring eyes, so the performance (and the moves) are enough to carry you through the movie.

It helps that it's a very shlocky exploitation flick, an archetype about a lone man who has to fight (literally) the system down to its most depraved depths to save the ones he loves.

It's also a unique feat that you care about hero Bradley (Vaughan) to the end because in the opening scenes he comes across as something of a bastard, insistent bordering on abusive about the way he and his almost-estranged wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) try and save their marriage and punching the shit out of her car in a temper.

They're on the rocks because they're also on the skids. Bradley has lost his job in an auto repair shop and the last thing he wants is to rely on old connections from his shady past. But in short order he's a courier and enforcer for an old drug lord pal, and with Lauren expecting a baby 18 months later everything's coming up roses.

...until it doesn't, and he's busted in a deal gone wrong and put inside. It's a seven year stretch in medium security but Bradley thinks he can handle it if Lauren and his unborn child will wait for him.

But on his first day there a menacing visitor (the always-scary Udo Kier) visits Bradley to tell him that he now owes a debt to the shady partner his boss was working with. They're taken his wife hostage, and in possibly one of the squirmiest and most incentivising movie blackmail offers ever, he's told if he doesn't make his way deep into the maximum security apparatus of the prison system and assassinate some guy he's never heard of, an abortionist will remove limbs from his unborn daughter and mail them to him.

The Internet Movie Database trivia section compares his plight to The Divine Comedy and even if it wasn't intended by writer/director Craig S Zahler it's a fair comparison. Like Dante descending through hell to save his wife, Bradley has to pick fights with inmates, guards and anyone he can to be transferred to ever-worse wings of ever-worse prisons so he can finally reach his target.

He does so until he's relegated to the titular cell block under the sadistic and enigmatic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) and his guards, who mete out all manner of psychological and physical torture on Bradley while he tries to dig himself even deeper into the hole (literally – after starting off in a well-lit minimum security facility he ends up a dank, dimly lit chamber like the boiler room at the bottom of a brick pit).

As well as being a simple and compelling nuts and bolts story with the promise (and delivery) of gouts of insane violence and blood and with Vaughan seeming to be committed completely to both the preparation and role, there are a few tics in the photography that make Bradley's descent even more claustrophobic and desperate.

At times I thought I saw an almost fish-eye lens effect to show how hemmed in he feels (but might have imagined it), and even something as simple as the colour scheme moves from bright whites to filthy, bruised reds splattered across the shadows.

It's ironic that he's sometimes a bit less than convincing in the fight scenes because this role seems tailor made for Vaughan. His height, the bulk he seems to have put on and those glaring eyes are great fodder to play a very dangerous guy who won't hesitate to break every bone in your body to get past you and get what he wants.

Unlike an action star like Jason Statham whose movements are a lot more based around slick martial arts, Vaughan doesn't have finesse or flair, he's just a block of iron smashing through brick walls as the title promises.

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