Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 18, 2017)
Vince Vaughn as a bald-headed, tattooed prison inmate? I didn’t see that one coming, but that’s what we get from 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) loses his job so he agrees to move drugs for his pal Gil (Marc Blucas) to better support his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). Eventually related crimes send Bradley to prison.
Bradley owes a debt to a cartel, and they kidnap Lauren. To save her, Bradley must kill a fellow inmate, a task that places him amidst a mix of challenges.
Based on the film’s title and its promotional art, one might expect Brawl to deliver a 1970s-influenced “drive-in” action flick. Much of the movie feels like a throwback to that era.
Brawl doesn’t become a campy semi-spoof, though, as it plays its material seriously. It avoids the urge to go for the kind of period parody that usually befalls projects of this sort.
I admire that, as it allows Brawl to nod toward its obvious influences without a strong trace of goofiness. The movie gives us the general feel of the 1970s but it turns into a darker, more serious tale than expected.
These facets come as pleasant surprises, but do they make Brawl an actual good movie? Meh – as much as I appreciate some of its elements, it doesn’t turn into a consistently satisfying affair.
One substantial problem stems from its running time. Going into Brawl, I assumed it’d clock in around 95 minutes, whereas it actually fills a mind-numbing 132 minutes. That’s “serious drama” territory, not what you’d expect from a prison-based action flick.
We tend to feel that length, especially during the movie’s nearly interminable first act. Brawl takes a very, very slow path to get where it wants to go, as Bradley doesn’t actually enter prison until around 46 minutes into the story.
That’s about half of the full running time I expected from Brawl. It’s a good 20 minutes more than the movie needs to develop its narrative and characters, and Bradley doesn’t finally reach Cell Block 99 until nearly 90 minutes into the film.
If the movie used the cinematic real estate better, I wouldn’t mind, but it dawdles and drags. On the surface, I should appreciate the fact that Brawl proceeds at its own deliberate pace, but too much of the material seems monotonous and slow for slow’s sake, not because the tale needs to progress in that manner.
With a different title and focus, the sluggishness might matter less, but face it: fans go into a flick like this with a certain expectation for lively action. They don’t get it, as Brawl opts for small-scale battles and a slow boil.
Even if I ignore those preconceived notions, Brawl stalls because it really does run too long. The film simply fails to move along the narrative at an appropriate rate, so many of those minutes feel extraneous.
Ultimately, this turns Brawl into a mixed bag, as it’s a film I respect more than I enjoy. I appreciate the serious and subdued nature of the project, and I like the fact it subverts genre clichés.
However, Brawl remains a tough slog because it moves so damned slowly. This doesn’t result in a particularly impactful payoff, so Brawl becomes an erratic experience.