Say "Vince Vaughn," and what's the first image that comes up? His "you're so money" suit-wearing Swingers alpha male? His heroic environmentalist-slash-shutterbug in the first Jurassic Park sequel? Maybe your go-to Vaughn is The Break-Up–era bloated version that graced tabloid covers and Jennifer Aniston's beach pics, or the smarmy comic Casanova of Wedding Crashers? Forget those other Vinces. Whenever someone says the actor's name, you'll now see a glowering, menacing hulk of a man, one with a tattoo of a cross on the back of his shorn skull and balled fists held up in front of his battered face. The role he plays in this ultra-violent, nihilistic slab of a prison flick is enough to wipe the past-persona slate clean. If that misbegotten sophomore season of True Detective gave us anything, it was the notion that Vaughn's mid-to-late-career move would be to edge toward darkness. He's officially made good on that promise. Full-on into-the-abyss mode fits him well.
When you meet his working-class stiff Bradley Thomas, the man has just lost his towing job and discovered his spouse (Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter) has been seeing someone on the side. He does what any man would, i.e. physically dismantle her car piece by piece (the ex-boxer is inhumanly strong; take note of this fact), then vows to make things right again. Bloodied hands, busted marriage, they're both recovering alcoholics – director S. Craig Zahler seems to be leading us into a kitchen-sink drama about lives of full volume desperation. Fast-forward 18 months, and Bradley is delivering drugs, he's upgraded his living situation and his wife has a bun in the oven. An ill-conceived partnership leads to a pick-up going bad and a shoot-out with cops. Our man is staring down a seven-year bid for not giving up names. And you are drumming your fingers, wondering if this somewhat sluggish, so-so jailbird movie is ever really going to take off.
The answer is: Hell yes. After a full hour-plus of set-up, a mystery man shows up to visit Bradley in his new minimum-security home. Anyone with a casual acquaintance of oddball cinema and vintage Eurosploitation knows right off the bat that when that man is played by German actor Udo Kier, who can turn a blank-eyed stare into a shorthand for perversity and/or a punchline, things are about to get weird. The gent has a message: His employer is angry that the convict cost him that botched deal. Bradley has to find and kill another prisoner in penance, or else his kidnapped wife is going to suffer. There's a catch, however. The target is in a different prison, one renowned for its no-tolerance, pro-torture policies. Which means he needs to get himself transferred to a waking nightmare by any means necessary.
And like Zahler's previous movie Bone Tomahawk (2015), which starts out as a standard-issue Western and then detours into some horror-film territory, Brawl makes a hard left going into its last half and truly comes alive. Suddenly, our man in the jumpsuit is loudly breaking bones and literally busting skulls (the audio team here deserves a mantle full of awards for what we'll call "wet impact" sound design) and headed to the catacombs dungeon that is Cell Block 99, what the warden (Don Johnson, actually twirling his mustache) describes as the "prison within the prison." Each mano y mano encounter is filmed mostly in full-body shots with a minimum of edits but a maximum amount of cuts and contusions – the effect is like watching Fred Astaire's dance scenes if the hoofer decided to wallop giant thugs with bare knuckles and barbells instead of waltz.
Whether such things are your jam, of course, will determine how much you go with Zahler's vision of a skinhead Virgil descending into hell. This is a thriller that's nasty, brutish and anything but short – grindhouse devotees could add a half-star to the review for the way the film wears its sadism so blatantly on its blood-stained sleeve, or deduct a half-star for the fact that any such joint clocking in at 132 minutes is questionable. The story takes its sweet time so you get to know and invest in its players, but you wouldn't really call Brawl's broad narrative sketches "character development" any more than you'd call its digs at America's haves and have-nots "class commentary." Zahler's film just wants to shock you, smack you around and shake you up, and once its star starts bringing the pain, it succeeds with honors. It's excessive, but that's the point. The fact that this grungy gem is within spurting distance of being a modern exploitation-movie classic simply frustrates you that it isn't one.
What makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 work so well isn't the violence, however, but Vaughn. Sporting a physique that's less beefcake and more like "beef + cake," the actor sells the notion that Bradley is a person capable of stomping out someone's brains on a concrete floor when push comes to shove. You're surprised it's taken someone this long to figure out that his bulky size and towering height could be deployed for such blunt-force trauma. The usual motor-mouthed patter you associate with him is gone, replaced by a dry, deadpan wit – asked if his muscles are for show, he replies, "They help me lift stuff" – and the ain't-I-a-stinker charisma that even characterized his more disturbing turns (see Clay Pigeons) is AWOL. If many male stars of a certain age are destined to become late-act action heroes, we hope this is Vaughn's Taken, and his particular set of skills will continue to involve dishing out such graceless, effective hurt. And if this the first stop of an all-out Vaughnaissance, consider us on board for the ride.