Vince Vaughn is a freakishly tall, fast-talking Jewish man whose presence in early-aughts rom-coms like Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up has been dismissed as mediocre, if not disappointing. But if Matthew McConaughey can pick up the pieces—and, along the way, an Academy Award—then so can he. The S. Craig Zahler-directed Brawl in Cell Block 99 presents a Vaughn like you’ve never seen him before.
We’re in the ‘70s, and Bradley (Vaughn), a laid-off mechanic who comes home to his cheating wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), has reached rock bottom. Convinced that something’s gotta give, he reconnects with an old boss and becomes a drug runner. 18 months later, Bradley and the now-pregnant Lauren go from a rundown shack to a life of plush suburbanism—until a drug pickup goes south and Bradley is sentenced to seven years in prison.
It’s ridiculous how drawn out the buildup of this movie is; over an hour in and we’re only just entering the prison premises, but we’re still a far cry from the action. As penance for the failed drug deal, Bradley needs to eliminate an inmate from the titular, maximum-security Cell Block 99. If he doesn’t comply, an abortionist is on standby to clip the limbs of his unborn baby. Thus begins the brawling.
To call Vaughn a force to be reckoned with would be a regrettable understatement—he is a staggering, hounding beast, and this performance is a redemptive effort after decades of terrible acting gigs. He wears neo-Nazi patriotism like a glove, and his bald head and familial motivation are strong nods to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. The sound effects that punctuate his punches and kicks are purposefully louder than usual, as if to signal the desire to inflict a barbaric, almost primal, kind of pain. But behind the aggression, there’s an earnestness to Vaughn’s acting, presumably a remnant of his rom-com years. He is straight-faced and determined in every single frame, except for one scene in which his face contorts into utter desperation. When his eyes close and the tears fall, you realize the old Vince Vaughn is never coming back.
S. Craig Zahler, who is already drawing comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, has managed to put up a fantastic follow-up to his directorial debut in Bone Tomahawk. He crafts action scenes not with the intention of exciting you or convincing you to root for the good guy—Zahler wants you to be uncomfortable, to be unnerved. Prepare yourself for broken limbs and bloody eyes.
As a supporting character, Carpenter manages to hold her own; she’s had her own little career rethink as well (most people remember her for yelling “Look at my huge bedonkey!” in D-list film White Chicks). And Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, who plays Warden Tuggs, is demented in all the right places.
Even after his turns on True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge, it’s still a huge gamble to bet on Vaughn as a leading action man, but blunt scriptwriting and masterful direction put the pieces into place. It may be a while before he scoops up an Academy Award of his own, but it seems like his career is only just beginning.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is now showing in select theaters.