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Brawl In Cell Block 99 (4K UHD Blu-ray Review)

Director S. Craig Zahler caught the attention of many with his 2015 film Bone Tomahawk. I know here at Why So Blu, many of us were quite fond of that little Western-horror hybrid gem.  Now he returns with his follow up, Brawl In Cell Block 99, a sorta prison thriller starring the likes of Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas and the loveable Udo Kier. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, this one had a smaller theatrical run, paired with a VOD release shortly after. The film has received many positive marks from all around the globe, most of them praising Vince Vaughn as giving one of his career best performances. RLJE Films is surprising us with not just a Blu-ray and DVD release, but a 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray home video edition of the film on December 26th. 

Film 

A former boxer named Bradley loses his job as an auto mechanic, and his troubled marriage is about to expire. At this crossroads in his life, he feels that he has no better option than to work for an old buddy as a drug courier. This vocation improves his situation until the terrible day that he finds himself in a gunfight between a group of police officers and his own ruthless allies. When the smoke clears, Bradley is badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence that turn the place into a savage battleground.

S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an edge of your seat thriller that toys with your thoughts and emotions in such a no way out of here scenario that is high entertainment.  Everything is firing on all cylinders in this anti-hero thrill ride that has certainly had some buzz, but may go as one of the more underseen movies of the year. I imagine, like Bone Tomahawk before it, when it his something like Netflix or Amazon Prime, you’ll get more chatter. Its a film that really argues for a spot on end of the year top 10 lists while not even having its presence known come prestige awards season.

The cast here is certainly all bringing their A-game. Vaughn is every bit as good as you’ve heard. Hell, this is likely his career best but the film is too young some may be timid to call it that. The cast is pretty fun with good character turns from Don Johnson and Jennifer Carpenter in strong supporting roles. What may be also surprising and awesome, is that Udo Kier may be the best he’s been in many many years. The man is a known consummate pro and a scenery chewer, but this is a whole different level he brings here. He is a force of threatening dread and makes you truly fear him.

I’ve not seen a prison film that felt so raw and real before. Personally, I’ve never been arrested or in prison, so I’m going off what I imagine is an attempt at some accuracy. While the film sells itself as one (Especially in the title), its really only half the movie. You really feel like you get to experience things as Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas does.  In at least the case of the first prison, things feel very lifelike. The guards all feel like you’re truly watching some sort of reality TV or security camera footage. Its only when we get to the maximum security prison that things seem to get over the top and sinister.

Violence is a key aspect in this movie. S. Craig Zahler has put himself into a league and upper echelon with the likes of Neil Marshall here. His film has numerous fight sequences/shootouts that just by the nature of how they are told will have you glued to your seat. In his film, punches, gunshots, broken bones…these things hurt when they happen. You squirm and bounce in your seat with each bit of brunt force. And its not shown in a celebratory or flashy manner. Its never meant to cheered. The decision to use practical effects also goes a long way here.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a tour de “force”. It carries great performances, smart dialogue and a plot that hurts you emotionally due to its almost “no-win” scenario our anti-hero is forced into. Vince Vaughn is unlike you’ve ever seen him before in a film that punches and claws its way all the way to the finish. It’ll have you on the edge of your seat, gut punched and more. Its quite the trip. If you loved Bone Tomahawk, you really shouldn’t miss out on this one at all.

Video 

Encoding: HEVC / H.265

Resolution: 4K (2160p)

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Layers: BD-66

Clarity/Detail: Unfortunately here, there is no HDR on this image. Its a little crisp uptick from the standard Blu-ray with incremental improvements on movements on details. A lot can be seen in bushes, trees and stuff with details and textures. Its a very cold looking, bleached movie, so not too rambunctious with color.  This one has a little bit more of a grainier look than the standard Blu-ray. Looking at both, it IS an improvement overall, but to someone more common, they’d probably struggle to see a difference.

Depth:  There is a little more clarity and depth of field on display in this 4K Ultra-HD image compared to the Blu-ray. Movements are natural and smooth with no issues of jitter/blurring on display during the fight scenes and rapid movements.

Black Levels: Blacks are pretty deep and manage to hold onto detail on things like clothes, surfaces and dark shadow heavy scenes. No crushing witnessed.

Color Reproduction:

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are rather cold looking from start to finish, thanks to a lot heavy blue filtered. Facial features like wrinkles, dried blood, tattoo texture, wrinkles, stubble and more come through quite well.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean

Audio 

Audio Format(s): English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French

Dynamics: This is a punch heavy audio track, coming at you in 5 channels. When it comes to deep, pouncing sounds, this is pretty excellent. Aside from that, the effects are really clean, distinct, layered with good depth. Its a rather rock solid track, nothing too special, but the film itself isn’t demanding a whole lot.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: As mentioned, punches really bring the thunder, as well as the loud gunfire from cannon-esque arms.

Surround Sound Presentation: This is a front heavy track for the most part. The rears aren’t neglected, but they are very carefully integrated with some fun shootouts early on.

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear and crisp.

Extras 

Brawl In Cell Block 99 comes with the Blu-ray edition of the film.

Journey To The Brawl (HD, 15:10) – A nice look back at the film and the cast and director’s admiration for one another. There are also little tid bits about working through specific scenes and line of dialogue that really give you an idea of it was to work with S. Craig Zahler on the film.

Beyond Fest Q&A (HD, 31:31) – The full Q&A session from the cast and direct S. Craig Zahler from Beyond Fest.

Summary 

The hype is real. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is quite a force of violence, dramatics and thrills wrapped up into one. Its 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray presentation proves to be a slight step up above the standard Blu-ray, but not a significant one. The lack of making use of HDR and not offering an Atmos track make it really hard to see a reason to champion this over the standard release. But, if the best is what you must have, then technically, this is it.

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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