When I saw Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017) a week ago, I really didn’t know how to tackle the review for this. I really did not like it or care for it whatsoever, and it currently has a very limited theater release, so no matter what I say about it, it’s not a movie a lot of people will currently be able to go out of their way to see. That was, however, until I recently saw the Rotten Tomatoes score. Even though the RT score is an aggregate number based on many subjective opinions, it’s still something you can point to as fact, like a grade on your homework, and bitch about into the void. Currently, this movie has a 97%, which is really high and indicates that this movie is super super good or something, probably, I don’t know, I didn’t actually read anybody’s full reviews. So since I happen to not agree with this one website’s big score, I’m gonna totally slam this movie and drop some hard facts as to why this movie is bad.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 features Vince Vaughn as a character. His basic “character” traits are as follows:
- Has a Southern-drawl but speaks in witty quips, indicating that he is smart.
- Has a big fuck-off cross-tattoo on the back of his head for no reason other than to attempt to establish Vaughn’s moral code while also giving the story depth with a pretentious “duality of man” anti-hero motif.
- Has a generally calm demeanor (again, as indicated by the casual southern drawl).
- Is super woke ‘cause he calls out his boss’ use of homophobic and racist slurs.
- Is apparently as physically indestructible and capable of intense violence as Michael Myers.
This is really all there is to him. He has a wife that he exhibits abusive behavior towards when he finds out she cheated on him, and he aggressively grabs at her briefly before proceeding to beat the shit out of her car like it’s the bonus round in Street Fighter (without getting a scratch himself, mind you), but this is quickly forgiven and forgotten after the next scene. She stops cheating on him, he’s not abusive towards her (not that you should forget he did that in the first place), and they give having a baby together another shot. Cell Block 99 does what every bad action movie does that I absolutely hate: it creates rooting-interest in a generic male protagonist by emphasizing how he loves sexing and providing for his pretty young wife, and when the writers inevitably fridge her, it’s supposed to motivate ‘our hero’ to either save her or stay alive long enough to return to her like a good and dutiful husband. It’s one of the most transparently forced and problematic screenwriting tropes out there, and it’s indicative of a bad script with nothing to say and a lack of genuinely interesting characters. Even still, it’s weird that Cell Block 99 dispels the drama and conflict between its characters so quickly. In fact, that is this movie’s biggest problem: its absolute lack of drama.
The plot is very simple and frustratingly standard for its genre. Vaughn loses his job at the beginning of the film and becomes a drug runner for some good money. He gets busted by the cops during a run with some other guys, but Vaughn kills his partners when they start to unload on the police with machine guns because he’s a #goodguy and he doesn’t want innocents hurt/killed, especially not while he’s working to provide life-ruining drugs to people. He gets arrested and goes to jail anyways ‘cause, ya know, he’s a drug runner. However, his boss contacts him while he’s in jail, pissed that he lost millions of dollars worth of drugs, and lets him know that he kidnapped his wife and is threatening to kill her if Vaughn doesn’t go kill some guy in a highly secluded wing of a maximum security prison – the titular “Cell Block 99.”
This film is one of the most poorly executed and poorly paced versions of a story like this I’ve seen. Not many good crime films have been released in the past decade – they’re almost always cash-grab star vehicles – but at least they’re decently exciting and they play out in a traditionally structured manner. This movie doesn’t establish its stakes, the cause for adventure for the protagonist, until halfway through the movie. And this movie is two and a quarter hours long. Cheese and rice, that’s a long time to wait before feeling any tension. This is apparently because filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, who made Bone Tomahawk (2015), decided to go for realism in his story. Scenes are paced very slowly, and until the halfway point it’s just Vaughn doing things. Every detail of his job as a drug courier, his interactions with people, a couple scenes with his happy pregnant wife, you see it all. It’s just so boooorrrrriiiiinnnnggggg. Nothing is being established, I’m not learning anything about Vaughn that I didn’t already know, and he’s not even doing anything exciting or escapist since he’s a polite #niceguy. He just does things. I will concede that Vaughn brings a charisma to the role that is mildly captivating at the most, but he’s no Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), earning an Oscar nomination for just playing himself being charismatic and carrying that movie on his back.
About halfway through, when our main character finally has a goal, Zahler forgets he’s going for a realistic crime drama and just turns Vaughn into an unstoppable monster. They establish around this point in the film that he used to dabble in boxing, but apparently that translates into beating the shit out of everyone in gruesome ways and breaking limbs left and right. However, even the bloody turn this film takes lacks excitement or drama. Vaughn fighting way to Cell Block 99 is boring because of how easy of a goal this is for him. He never gets hurt and he is able to take down multiple guys at once, no problem. The fights look very choreographed and are shot very statically, looking like they’re happening on a stage or it’s the training montage in The Miami Connection (1987). The absolute absence of obstacles is baffling. Only at the very end is there some suspense about what will happen, but at that point I didn’t give a shit about anything and I just wanted the slow burn of a movie to be over.
So yeah, that what I thought about that. Save yourself a couple of hours, skip this movie.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a very boring and slow burn of a movie, proving that a realistic approach to crime drama is not necessarily a more interesting way to tackle the genre, especially if your main character ends up being as indestructible as Michael Myers. The plot is very boring and generic and Vaughn carries the movie on charisma alone as his character is drastically underwritten, with the attempt to make him a likable protagonist by having him be a tragic martyr/anti-hero (he has a giant cross on the back of his head for pete’s sake) just coming off as weird and pretentious.
One thought on “Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017) Review: When Realism Goes Awry”
I couldn’t agree with you more. The story lacked depth and there were no character arcs. This was a waste of 2 hours of my life. Apart from 1 or 2 decent fight scenes, there was a severe lack of connection for me to the characters, believability, and story.