As my 15th film in my binge week at the London Film Festival, Brawl in Cell Block 99 was unlike anything else I saw at the festival, and was all the better for it. A violent, pulpy drama, chock full of charm, it went down a treat in the packed auditorium. This is the definition of a cult romp, one you will have a lot of fun.
When we first meet Bradley (never Brad, one of the many good running gags) he loses his job and finds out his wife is cheating on him. After tearing apart a car using his hand (a hint of what is to come), Bradley finds a job as a drug runner. This leads him to prison and on the wrong side of a Mexican cartel, who kidnap his wife. To gain her release Bradley must fight his way to Cell Block 99. The plot may be ridiculous but it is in the execution that the film hits its stride.
The strength of this film is that it takes its time before unleashing the violence on screen. For the first 40 minutes, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a well-constructed, often amusing drama about a drug runner. It is only once Vince Vaughn's Bradley enters prison, and has to fight his way to his end destination, that director Zaehler's film lets loose. And with well-earned freedom, comes marvellously constructed fights. The camera holds back and rarely cuts, allowing the audience to take in all that is happening.
The revelation here is Vince Vaughn (head shaved), an actor it has often been easy to mock, given some questionable career choices of late (The Internship, The Dilemma, Couples Retreat). Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels like the first time a film has used the actor's imposing frame, and here he is capable of handling the fight scenes, as well as the many great one-liners the script gifts to him. It is believable he would win the fights he is part of, a key part of what makes the film so engaging. We are routing for this character to succeed, to reach Cell Block 99.
This film is ridiculous, and yet it is oddly affecting. By taking his time Zaehler constructs a film that remains engaging, no matter how silly it becomes. It also plays particularly well with an audience, the vocalisation in response to the fights adding another level of enjoyment. This promises to be a cult hit for years to come and made a wonderful sorbet from the arthouse fare and award contenders that made up the rest of the Film Festival.
This is a London Film Festival preview and Brawl in Cell Block 99 will be released on Friday 20th October.