I’ve talked about exploitation movies before and what they are about. If you missed that, a quick primer. They are movies that are mostly designed to shock by emphasizing either controversial world views or by having lots of sex and gore, maybe even both at the same time. They are mostly trashy and not worth bothering with but there are some that are good. Many class Mad Max as an exploitation film and the first time I brought this genre up was when reviewing the simply brilliant Green Room. But does the latest exploitation film to get big, Brawl in Cell Block 99, fall in the trash category or surprisingly good category? Let’s find out.
After being laid off, Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn, The Break-Up) goes back to his old life as a drug mule. This is a success for a while and he and his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter) live a happy life. However Bradley eventually gets caught and sent to prison. While he is willing to serve his time and wait until he is released, a mysterious man (Udo Kier, Downsizing) tells Bradley to get himself sent to a maximum security prison to kill an inmate or risk the lives of his wife and unborn child.
Yes you did read that summary right. Vince Vaughn, best known for being the pudgy bloke in rom coms, is in a hardcore exploitation film. It is one of the most ridiculous casting decisions I’ve seen and yet it ends up working perfectly. Because Vaughn usually slums it in very poor comedies, we don’t get to see that he actually has range. And here he gets a chance to show that because here he is cast as one tough bugger. This is a man who is introduced to us as someone who can destroy a car with his bare hands and you completely forget that this is Vaughn playing him. It’s an amazing performance from him and probably the best in his career. I hope this signifies a new direction for Vaughn and means I won’t be seeing him in terrible comedy movies anymore.
And yes, this is a brutal exploitation movie. And yes, it is an exploitation movie. It’s a film where the primary threat is an abortionist who is planning to amputate the limbs of an unborn child and then send them to the main character. If you are creating that sort of imagery in a film, you are making an exploitation film which is going to offend some people. And that goes for the violence as well. At first it seems like its just going to be a movie that merely hurts with its violence, the punches feel real and it seems like the characters are actually getting hurt. But then it goes a few extra steps by having Bradley literally snap someone’s elbow the wrong direction which I’ll admit caused me to let out a very girly yelp. It’s certainly the most shocking thing I’ve seen since the scene in Green Room where a guy has his arm hacked off by a knife. This is a nasty film to watch but its nasty in the way many people will enjoy.
But that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have character. Vaughn’s Bradley may be a stony character who doesn’t show emotion but he has plenty of depth. This is a guy who isn’t perfect, he’s a drug smuggler and that’s a job that brings misery to so many, but is trying to do the right thing. When his fellow drug smugglers get into a gun fight with police, Bradley takes out his ‘friends’ to make sure that no policeman gets killed. This doesn’t help him as he still gets a lengthy sentence but at least his heart is in the right place. But he’s also someone who seems quite at home just destroying people’s limbs. The man can crush another man’s head Mountain style, it’s messed up to say the least. But the character work is solid throughout.
However this movie is so slow that it would have to have its hazards on if it was a car on the road. The whole point of this movie is that we see Vince Vaughn destroy some horrible people in this horrible prison cell. It wants to be a good old jailspolitation film and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just wish that the movie would get a move on. Most other films of this ilk don’t even get to the one hour and a half mark because they have the attitude of get in, have lots of blood spurt at the screen and cause half of the viewers to faint in shock and then get out. This movie is over two hours and that’s because it takes a lot of time to do anything. There’s a basic set-up scene where Bradley is told he has to bring these other people with him on his task. It’s a scene that should take about five minutes but ends up just going on and on in circles. This sort of film should be quick and punchy but it is anything but.
And if I’m honest, the plot isn’t up to much. It’s a fairly basic revenge thriller at its core. A man is forced to do something he doesn’t want to do and eventually turns against the guy who is forcing him to do that big style. And it doesn’t do anything really to separate itself from other films that follow this plot. The villains are suitably sinister and mysterious but every other film of its ilk has the same sort of villain. Yes, Bradley is geniunely terrifying as a hero because he can destroy things with his little finger but I’ve seen that before. Even it’s bone crunching action has been seen before. I have had to witness many films where I should question the sanity of the director because of how much they show limbs breaking so while it is one of the more impressive examples of this, it’s still not different from other films in the genre.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is on its way to being a cult classic that will be enjoyed fans of exploitation films for years to come. So really, me not loving it like so many do is not going to matter. The fact that I think the very slow pace and the fact its plot is humdrum will not matter when it has some of the most brutal action in the last few years and a performance from Vince Vaughn that no one believed he could do. I do like this film because of those films but I didn’t quite enjoy it like a lot did but that doesn’t matter. In reality, this is always going to be a niche film which only appeals to a certain audience. And so instead of being miserable, I will celebrate the fact a niche film is actually finding a wider audience than expected. Huzzah!