Brawl In Cell Block 99 takes Vince Vaughn's main character on a Dante's Inferno-style descent. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is the second feature from S. Craig Zahler, who previously helmed 2015's excellent Bone Tomahawk. That was a Western adventure starring Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson which took a hard turn into horror in the final act. The film was notable for its great dialogue and performances, in addition to featuring some genuinely harrowing sequences.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley, who is laid off from his mechanic job and decides to go back to work as a drug mule. This briefly leads to a better life for him and his pregnant wife Lauren, played by Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), but he's later arrested and sent to prison. The movie was praised upon release for its throwback, 1970s style, Vaughn's almost unrecognizable transformation into a bruising criminal and Zahler's trademark ear for dialogue. Like Bone Tomahawk, it also featured some wince-inducing violence.
The turning point of Brawl In Cell Block 99 comes when Bradley is visited in prison by the mysterious Placid Man (Udo Kier, Iron Sky: The Coming Race), who tasks him with being transferred to another prison to kill a man named Christopher Bridge. If he doesn't, he's told very bad things will happen to his wife and unborn child. Bradley thus fights his way through prisoners and guards alike to get transferred to the titular cell block 99. When he succeeds, he learns this block is basically a living hell, where the very worst prisoners are sent to be tortured and live in cells littered with filth and broken glass.
This also where Bradley learns the truth - there is no Christopher Bridge. He was tricked into getting himself sent to cell block 99 so Eleazar - a criminal who feels Bradley double-crossed him - could torment him personally. Many reviewers have pointed out the parallels between Brawl In Cell Block 99 and the first part of Dante's classic poem The Divine Comedy, with Inferno charting Dante's descent through the nine circles of Hell. While Bradley doesn't quite fight through nine levels or fight literal demons, his situation rapidly goes from bad to worse to apocalyptically doomed. Cell block 99 is a stand-in for Hell itself, which Bradley descends into to save his loved one.
Bradley seems to find a certain freedom in the fact he's damned since he ultimately undertakes a suicide mission to kill Eleazar and his men while using a cell phone to arrange his wife's rescue. Brawl In Cell Block 99 ends with Bradley saying goodbye to his wife and unborn child, before the warden (Don Johnson, Knives Out), personally shoots him for the death of a guard. The movie is a tough, gruesome b-movie that's also darkly funny. The Dante's Inferno subtext doesn't draw attention to itself but its there for viewers who dig a little deeper into Bradley's hellish descent.