Brawl in Cell Block 99 4K UHD Blu-ray Review

Vince Vaughn Chain Gang

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a number of things. It begins as an economic fable. Vince Vaughn, quiet, monotone, but seething, loses his tow job as the economy bottoms out. To support his pregnant wife, Vaughn turns to crime, transporting drugs. The deal goes expectedly awry, and Vaughn becomes a sympathetic anti-hero who serves jail time for saving a number of cops during a shoot-out.

S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahwak) isn’t done though. His film dissects the American prison system, pushing Vaughn into squalled conditions. No one cares for a murderer, even if said killings saved lives. Still later, Cell Block 99’s remorseful tone becomes a cruel morality play. Bones break. Faces strip from their skulls. Heads separate from their bodies. Ideas of what’s right, if there’s any right in this at all, turn Cell Block 99 into a complex ethical dilemma.

As with the ‘70s era prison thrillers Cell Block 99 emulates, Zahler employs copious levels of violence. A certain artificiality hangs over the prosthetics, further recalling a lost era of filmmaking. Yet, Cell Block 99 is an expressive tale, interrupted only by smooth R&B occasionally inset into the drama. It’s the only music; Cell Block 99 features no score.

Cell Block 99 is reserved, acting out only as necessary, puncturing stretches of silence with cracking bones

The camera often hangs on Vaughn. Zahler gets all he can from his star. Vaughn sits isolated in a cell, dim light streaming in from the window. He often seems lost in thoughts and caught in an inescapable trap. Few people in Cell Block 99 escape from this script without a moral blemish. Prison guards find glee in assaulting inmates; inmates take glee in assaulting guards. Action scenes allow the choreography to work in front of the camera, edits sparingly used.

“Brawl” suggests an old-fashioned prison riot. That’s not the case. Cell Block 99 is reserved, acting out only as necessary, puncturing stretches of silence with cracking bones. Vaughn doesn’t enter the prison until the first hour nears its close. Cell Block 99 builds its character and empathy before setting him behind a steel door with only a sagging cot and stopped up toilet. Slowly, a literal and figurative descent toward madness ensues.

Vaughn’s character isn’t inherently likable. He’s street smart. The back of his head features a dynamically colored cross tattoo, but he’s unwilling to injure or maim until necessary. Cell Block 99 imbues a play of human selfishness and masculine ideals – Vaughn must protect his wife at a distance, taking innocent bystanders with him in the process. That justifies the violence, and set in a prison only possible in cinema, if anyone dies, no one will care anyway.

Video (4K UHD/Blu-ray)

The two discs inside RLJ’s set pair together well: They look identical. Cell Block 99 is part of a rare breed. On 4K UHD, no HDR is included. Earlier this year, Hickok did the same, and since Cell Block 99 comes from a 2K finish, differences between UHD and Blu-ray reach negligible levels.

It’s possible to make the argument Cell Block 99’s 4K disc offers slightly better definition. In close, the additional resolution adds a small touch of sharpness not available in the 1080p presentation. That’s not worth the extra cost though.

Both discs offer the same color timing, mostly drowned in blues that impact flesh tones and environment. It’s a gaudy look. Cell Block 99 offers few striking primaries of note. Late in Cell Block 99, there’s a shift toward orange via underground lighting. Still, it’s overpowering and blocks out any other colors.

A bit of crush impacts shadow details. Other times, black levels shift into muddy blues. One scene, as Vaughn makes a drug drop, turns shadow deals into a weird, glowing red. After some 2000 discs reviewed in the past decade, that’s one of the odder color gaffes to appear.

Darker areas bring out noise and artifacts too. Pay attention to some background characters not in the set’s main lighting and it’s inevitable to see some swarming chroma noise or compression.


Both discs deliver DTS-HD 5.1, enough for the material if unimpressive. An early shoot-out sends the gunfire into the rear surrounds as Vaughn turns away. That’s a nice trick. Shots barely find their way into the subwoofer though, leaving this scene flattened. Most of Cell Block 99 acts the same, employing the low-end when a door is slammed or the soundtrack picks up. Even then, it’s mild and loose.

Any other surround use comes from ambiance. Concrete walls of the prisons invite a number of echoes. Voices spread around the soundfield as do footsteps, appropriate for the conditions.


Bonus features lead off with Journey to the Brawl, a typical making-of running 15-minutes. In a rare move, a Q&A session from Beyond Fest is included in full without being parsed down by edits. It runs a half hour.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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