Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) had some bad news today when he went into work: the boss was there, with two other employees to stave off any potential trouble, and he told him that he was fired and could clean out his locker. It got worse as Bradley returned home to find his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) in her car in their driveway where she was found to be conducting an affair, a state that made him very angry, so angry in fact that he began to demolish the vehicle with his bare hands. He didn't finish the job as the red mist evaporated and he accepted that he had to do something to prevent his marriage from ending; they had had terrible disappointment before when they lost their baby, so why not try for another?
As the car destruction indicates, Brawl in Cell Block 99 was not your average pregnancy drama suitable for an afternoon television movie, as if that title was not enough. Deliberately invoking the violent prison thrillers of the century before, from Brute Force to the like-titled Riot in Cell Block 11, which went on to garner cult followings among fans of vintage hardboiled suspense pieces, it also owed something to the trashier end of the prison movie scale, specifically the more violent presentations such as the Penitentiary series - it was not proud about where its allusions and influences lay, and that extended to the special effects, deliberately contrived to look as if they had been created in the seventies.
When I say special effects, I mean gore effects, as anyone who had witnessed writer and director S. Craig Zahler's previous movie Bone Tomahawk, or had read one of his novels, would recognise the same tricks he was pulling here. The Western had employed a very specific pace, allowing us to get to know the characters before we were gradually pushed into a state of extreme peril and eventual mass murder, and so it seemed this adopted that same template, only instead of being way out West it remained resolutely modern day and based around eventual confined spaces. Taking the style of so-called slow cinema and applying the horror movie effects of decades before was not what anyone else was trying.
Not that this made Zahler's efforts unique, he was perhaps a shade too invested in paying tribute to those man's man movies of yesteryear, with Vaughn indebted to Lee Marvin in genre classic Point Blank as the man of few words but a single-minded pursuit of his goal, which was to save his wife. Initially, we are unaware this will become the point of the plot, though as action movies featured women getting kidnapped nine times out of ten you could probably guess, as it appears the only money Bradley can make is from a local gang boss who wants him to carry out a pick-up of a drugs batch worth many millions of dollars. It goes well, up to a point, and then goes seriously wrong and our anti-hero winds up in a mess of flying bullets and apparently conflicting loyalties; this is what ends him up in prison. At first, the prison we see is fairly realistic, with no-nonsense guards who nevertheless are there to do their job and get paid with as little fuss as possible.
One of the guards tries to reignite Bradley's former interest in boxing, but he's having none of it, merely there to see out his sentence and get back to his family, as his wife is now a number of months pregnant, but the crime boss he effectively double crossed to save some cops (!) wants a very horrible revenge. Therefore Bradley must work out a way of leaving this prison behind - for a maximum security one, which once he reaches it through being as brutally disruptive as he can, turns out to be a lurid, pulpy version of every hellhole jail in every disreputable paperback or grindhouse flick you can envisage. He is there to kill someone the boss wants dead, or a nightmare abortionist will set to work on his unborn child, and these high stakes led to some lunatic displays of gory retribution. With a selection of cult favourites like Don Johnson and Udo Kier filling out the cast of reliable tough guy performers, Zahler genuinely concocted something unlike anything else out there at the time; it may have been purposefully stilted to catch the viewer off guard, but respond to its downright oddity and you'd likely appreciate it. Music by Jeff Herriot and Zahler, including pastiche songs.