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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

RLJ Entertainment
4K UHD Released: 12/26/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/1/2018

Movie reviews can often mention pacing, but there may be some who don't understand what that means. As the word implies, pacing has to do with the speed at which the movie moves and the rate at which the story unfolds. Some movies plow through story and use multiple cuts (I'm looking at you Michael Bay) to create a sense of break-neck speed. Others choose to tell the story in a much more stead, measured manner, allowing things to be revealed in a certain way. However, just as when many people are telling stories in real-life, there may be a juncture where the audience says, "Get to the point!" There is a fine-line between a slow-burn movie -- one in which the story gradually comes to a head -- and a movie which is taking far too long to get anywhere. Brawl in Cell Block 99 falls squarely into the second category.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is having a bad day. First, he gets laid off from his job as a tow-truck driver. Secondly, his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), reveals that she's been having an affair. Determined to turn their lives around, Bradley agrees to work a with Gil (Marc Blucas), a drug-dealer who has made a standing offer with Bradley. This seemingly bad decision actually pans out -- Bradley is making good money and he and Lauren are happy. But, Bradley get a bad feeling when Gil agrees to partner with another drug-smuggler. However, Gil makes him an offer which he can't refuse. This second seemingly bad decision lands Bradley in a heap of trouble, and he soon finds himself facing jail time. However, he'll soon learn that when you cross bad men, incarceration is the least of your problems.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is Director S. Craig Zahler's follow-up to his well-received 2015 film Bone Tomahawk. That film certainly fit the definition of a slow-burn, as it took its time unrolling the story and feeling very comfortable with its two-hour running-time. The pacing in that film undoubtedly dragged at times, but it could be forgiven, as it played as a mystery, and the audience was waiting to see what was going to happen. Then, the story takes a complete turn in the third act and becomes something very different. I felt that the film had some flaws, but I liked the original approach to the dialogue and there was no doubt that the brutality of the finale was eye-opening.

Zahler has attempted to take the same approach with Brawl in Cell Block 99, and the results are a disaster. First of all, let's start with Zahler's clear affection for slow pacing and the slow-burn approach. We know from the title that someone is going to prison. What we don't expect is that it takes 45-minutes for that someone to get to prison and even longer to get to the titular Cell Block 99. Why is this a problem? Because Zahler confuses suspense with watching people do stuff, and they clearly aren't the same thing. Based on the title and having a knowledge of the world, we know that Bradley is going to do something which lands him in prison, and Zahler assumes that we will care enough to find the waiting engrossing. But, this is a bold assumption, as the movie does very little to make us like or care about Bradley. I mean, after all, he did beat up a defenseless car in the film's second scene.

Once the "action" moves to prison, things don't improve. At first, we get some very stereotypical prison scenes. Then Zahler rolls out a new plot which comes across as far-fetched. Then, once again attempting to mimic what make Bone Tomahawk work, Zahler shifts things again, taking the film in a wildly ill-conceived direction. I don't want to give anything away, but what had been fairly grounded in reality suddenly looks like something from an Italian Escape from New York movie was the 80s, complete with a scenery-chomping Don Johnson as a sadistic warden. The problem with this part of the movie is that things get complete over-the-top and difficult to swallow, and yet, Zahler never steers away from his decidedly earnest story about Bradley being the ultimate family man. The two ideas don't work and one has to wonder why no one was putting a stop to this.

If anything, I guess that Brawl in Cell Block 99 can be commended for having its participants try something new. The prison movie genre is a decidedly stale one, so it's interesting that Zahler attempted to breathe new life into it, but he needed to pick a tone and stick with it. The movie becomes more ludicrous and violent as it moves along, and I don't think that the ending will satisfy anyone. As for Vince Vaughn, the naturally funny guy (who is the exact same age as me) plays it completely straight here. It's admirable that he tried something different, but he should have picked another project. If you truly want to see a prison movie in which the underdog has his day, then go with Riki-Oh, or as I call it, "the greatest movie ever made".

Brawl in Cell Block 99 actually lost me when Blucas attempted to portray a drug kingpin on 4K UHD courtesy of RLJ Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an HEVC 2160p HD transfer which runs at an average of 50 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no defects from the source materials and no noticeable grain. The movie has a dark look, but the action is always visible, and the colors look good and realistic. The level of detail works well and the actors are nicely separated from the backgrounds. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.3 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The effects come to life during the action sequences, where we are treated to stereo effects that highlight sounds coming from off-screen and surround effects which place us in the middle of the action. The gunshots and punches are emphasized by the impressive subwoofer effects. Would I have preferred a 7.1 track? Of course, but this track does OK.

The Brawl in Cell Block 99 4K UHD contains only two extra features. "Journey to the Brawl" (15 minutes) is a making-of featurette which offers interviews with Zahler, Vaughn, and other members of the cast and creative team. The piece contains a small amount of on-set footage, and it explores the evolution of the film, from the idea phase through the production, which presented its own unique challenges. "Beyond Fest Q&A" (31 minutes) takes us on-stage as several members of the team discuss the film following screening.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long