Hyper-violent ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ takes audiences to an unpleasant vision of reality

Justin Jones

Director S. Craig Zahler’s sophomore feature, “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” is one of the most violent movies of all time. It is a mean-spirited look into the horrors of prison life, and takes place in a world where happiness is as attainable as breaking out of prison.

Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, a down on his luck tow truck driver whose wife has a miscarriage, gets fired, and later discovers his wife is cheating on him. He turns to running drugs as way to make quick cash, which works out for a while until his twisted sense of morality leads him to murder his partners, and he is subsequently caught by police. The central hook of the movie, a task to murder a prisoner in the highest security level of a maximum security prison, does not come into clear view until about an hour into the film. The first hour or so is simply boring, and though it borrows setup from hard-boiled 70’s crime films, it trades their bizarre, low-budget charm for an unrelenting bleakness that permeates the over two hour runtime.

Bleakness in film is not always a mistake, but works like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Seven” utilized engaging characters to keep the movie interesting. In “Brawl,” every character is despicable, spouting racial epithets and homophobic slurs. No character has anything remotely resembling development, which lends a mind-numbing quality to the brutal scenes of titular brawling, once they eventually arrive.

But once the violence begins, it goes all in, leaving no head un-stomped. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” takes the violence of Zahler’s first film, the cannibal western “Bone Tomahawk,” and ratchets it up to 11. Skulls explode, bones snap out of skin and faces get torn off in scene after scene of beautiful violence between irredeemable characters. This savagery will certainly appeal to a specific audience, as it’s precisely executed, complete with perfect action choreography and practical effects.

Every performance in the film is spot on, with Vaughn playing against type surprisingly well as the world’s most desensitized ass-kicker. Udo Kier and Don Johnson also eat up scenery with deliciously villainous turns, owning their roles of bringing absolute misfortune upon Vaughn’s Bradley.

“Brawl in Cell Block 99” knows its audience. It features some of modern cinema’s most over-the-top moments of pure, inhuman barbarity. If that is your thing, see it, but it is hard to recommend to anyone else.


  • “Brawl in Cell Block 99”
  • Rating: Not yet rated
  • Runtime: 132 minutes
  • Score: 2.5/5 stars