Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

As every schoolboy knows, Jaws is not a film about a shark.  While we’re on the subject of films not being about what you might think they’re about, Midnight Express is not a film about a train, (it’s a “prison word for escape”).  Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not a film about a prison.  It’s also not a film about a train or a fish.  Though this statement may be a red herring. For as Jonah entered the ‘belly of a huge fish’, Vince Vaughan’s Bradley Thomas is compelled to enter literal and metaphorical depths to save his unborn daughter who is in the literal and metaphorical belly of his wife.

I’ll pour cold water on the aquatic metaphors for the remainder of this review, so please excuse the shift in tone as I speak seriously about BCB99’s…well…shift in tone.  For the first 3rdof BCB99 I was intrigued to see Vince Vaughan in a serious role, however, having spent the first act establishing the tone of a gritty drama, setting up the story of a good man beaten down by society, it wasn’t until the first gratuitously graphic snapping of bone that I realised I was watching a black comedy.

I’ll concede I was concerned that the film was about to become silly when the paper-thin character of VV’s wife (pun intended) was kidnapped, but given the eventual trajectory of BCB99 I’m not sure that the first third of the film was warranted.

Did we need to know that Vaughan’s Bradley Thomas is a victim of circumstance, a man of principal who would “rather knit baby booties with pink yarn than hit people for no reasonin order to earn the right to indulge in what is essentially a revenge flick dripping with 70s style grindhouse gore? [1]  Especially when the stakes are ratcheted up to eleven by the visitor he receives during his first night in prison.  Perhaps the filmmakers, for the sake of empathy felt they had to throw as much adversity as possible at a protagonist with all the expression of a sardine.

Which brings me onto VV’s casting.  The role doesn’t stretch Vaughan – standing as he does at “six four”, stretching is most likely something Vince Vaughan is not used to – he is believable enough as the tough guy with a southern affect.  However, with the film’s tonal shift such that it is, I can’t help thinking Nicholas Cage would have been more at home.

Still, tonal shift aside the final third of BCB99 is a bloody good romp.  Perhaps suggesting that this film is two thirds of a great film is unfair however, for better or worse, the over-the-top head stomping will be the memory which endures. 

[1]I suspect that “Jaws 2: The Revenge” is probably not a film about revenge but I haven’t seen it so can neither confirm nor deny.

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