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Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn’t have the mass brawl between inmates the title might suggest. Instead the film features small-scale scraps of alarming skull-exposing brutality. This is an outright exploitation film from the S. Craig Zahler who morphed the western genre into grand guignol with Bone Tomahawk.

There is depth to the carnage. Vince Vaughn turns in a cryptic, but sympathetic performance as Bradley, a man so pent up with inner rage that you never know when he will exorcise it. We don’t know his past but he is a troubled soul who just wants to settle down and make something of his life with pregnant girlfriend Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). It’s their believably flawed relationship that gives the film some reality and a means to root for Vaughn’s undeniably complex anti-hero. After a drug pick-up goes south, Bradley finds himself banged up for seven years with an impossible predicament involving a kidnapped girlfriend and a gutting descent to hell in cell block 99.

Director Zahler takes time to build the story towards the knuckle-gnawing prison fights. Like with Bone Tomohawk, he seems adement to establish character, mood and setting before indulging in exploitation fare. He achieves this successfully, maybe more so in Bone Tomohawk because the wide open spaces of the Wild West did so much to bring together a sense of time and place. With Cell Block 99, we watch the action in grim environments, most notably the final act’s dimly lit, excrement covered hell-hole.

The fight scenes are quick, shocking and neatly choreogrpahed. Each one is statically shot so there’s no escaping the brutal slugging with cuts only to show a close up of gore for that final knockout effect. Grim stuff indeed then, but delivered with expert direction from Zahler who cleverly takes his time between fights to focus on characters, atmosphere and story to prevent the film from becoming solely a grindhouse gore fest dug up from the 70s on VHS.

Oh and it’s good to see Vaugh going back to drama after a slew of lazy comedies.....and Fred Claus.

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