It takes director S. Craig Zahler a full 45 minutes to get Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) into prison, and even longer to arrive at the violent confrontation promised in the title of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like his feature debut, the talky, bloody horror western Bone Tomahawk, this film is unusually slow-paced for its genre, but Zahler's screenplay is driven by a solid central character and dialogue that might have made Elmore Leonard sit up straight.
Thomas is laconic when people leave him alone, and fast with snappy rejoinders when they don't. Vaughn lends the character a soulful stoicism that brightens only when he's talking to his wife about their child. A narcotics courier with a working moral compass, Thomas is ultimately arrested when, during a shootout, he turns on his violent partners to save the lives of the police.
But once he's locked up in a medium-security prison, the leader of a Mexican cartel kidnaps his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and orders him to kill a prisoner in a separate maximum security prison -- so Thomas, a man Zahler showed earlier ripping a car apart with his hands, begins assaulting guards in order to get transferred.
Cell block 99 itself is a cartoonishly grim prison sub-basement with broken glass-strewn floors where prisoners are tortured with electrified belts by a villainous, black-clad warden (Don Johnson). The director's storytelling sensibility recalls gritty, right-wing crime thrillers of the 1970s like Death Wish and Dirty Harry, revenge-driven narratives with high body counts. But Zahler approaches the violence as a horror director, crunching bones, smashing brains and ripping faces from skulls; it's definitely a memorable climax for a lengthy series of conversations.