A surprise hit at every festival it played at, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a very unusual movie. There’s a part of me that almost recommends not reading any reviews for the film so you can go in with as little information as possible and be surprised at what plays out. Even a little bit of information might give you the wrong impression about what you’re walking into. For starters, the word “brawl” implies a fun romp and the poster makes it look like a 70’s throwback film. While BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is fun at times and has some old 70’s movies vibe to it, it’s actually a pretty serious film about a man determined to protect his family. But trying to label the film into a specific genre is a losing effort because it doesn’t really fit into any genre. It may not fit into a box and it’s very hard to describe, but BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a fun film that takes a while to get going but eventually delivers in a very exciting third act.
The first 45 minutes of the film focuses on the relationship between Bradley (Vaughn) and his wife Lauren (Carpenter) as they overcome a miscarriage and a career change for Bradley. Desperate to provide for his family, Bradley starts running drugs for Gil (Blucas). During a joint pickup with another drug organization, Bradley finds himself with a moral dilemma that eventually gets him put in prison. While serving his prison sentence, Lauren gets kidnapped by the rival drug lord that blames him for the bust. In order to save his wife and unborn child, Bradley has to fight his way to Cell Block 99 to carry out a hit on a fellow inmate.
The first 45 minutes is where most people will criticize the film and they’re not entirely wrong. I assume that writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s goal was to set up Bradley as being a good guy that’s dedicated to his family and lives by a moral code. The first 45 minutes accomplishes that, but I believe they could have accomplished that in 15 or 20 minutes just as efficiently. Once Bradley gets to prison, the pacing of the film gets pretty consistent and works out very well for the great third act. Zahler does a great job with the fight scenes as well, crafting believable and brutal fights with minimal editing that give the audience a sense of doom. We feel claustrophobic as Bradley makes his way through the jail and we also feel a little helpless, making his transformation easier.
Traditional funnyman Vince Vaughn deserves special recognition for his portrayal of Bradley. Although he throws in a few funny quips, he keeps his normal, fast-talking schtick to a minimum, which allows the audience to embrace him as a tough guy. He’s clearly not the best fighter around, but he wasn’t going up against kung-fu masters; he was fighting other tough guy criminals and there was never a time I didn’t think Bradley could/should win the fight.
For those that have heard the good things about BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, you’ll be pleased to learn the buzz was legit and the film lives up to the hype. For those not familiar with the film, stay with it for those first 45 minutes and you’ll be rewarded in the end.
4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: I love that RLJ is releasing their films on 4K Ultra HD more consistently, but if they don’t embrace HDR, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Like MAYHEM, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a good film I hope finds life on home video. And also like MAYHEM, I’m disappointed it didn’t include HDR. That said, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 looks pretty decent without it. Black levels are strong throughout and the third act, which is almost entirely dark, looks pretty defined. I think HDR would have helped in some of the darker scenes, but it’s hard to complain too much about the level of detail in the film. Overall, this is an upgrade over the Blu-ray, even without the HDR.
Audio: The 4K features the same DTS-MA track from the Blu-ray.
This title was reviewed using a Samsung UBD-K8500 with a Sony XBR75X850C TV.
There are no special features exclusive to the 4K, but it does include a Blu-ray of the film, which includes the following special features:
Journey to the Brawl: The Making of Brawl in Cell Block 99: Standard making-of featurette.
Beyond Fest Q&A With Cast and Crew: I like these Q&A’s as long as the questions are interesting and the cast feels open. That’s true for the most part here and it feels like the cast had fun making the film.