Vince Vaughn and Immorally Moral Brawl in Cell Block 99
When options in life seem limited and circumstances present few options, even the moral may become immoral. Good people relunctantly choose to take a turn for the bad hoping a greater purpose is served. Vince Vaughn's portrayal of Bradley Thomas, the anti-hero of the prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99, is a mostly decent man who does very indecent things. While the audience feels for his plight and might sympathize and empathize with him in equal parts, Bradley Thomas remains an immoral man deserved of his fate. Nothing he does removes the specter of this truth from his actions.
The story starts with a down-on-your-luck prelude.
After losing his job working as a mechanic, Bradley Thomas returns to his old career of being a drug mule. He has wife and a soon-to-be born child to care for. A drug currying job predictably goes bad. Ironically, Thomas' decision to help save police during a shootout with his partners leads to his arrest.
A detective notes how Thomas choose to sacrifice himself to save the police officers and realizes he is, despite his career choice, a good and moral man. Thomas' morality won't allow him to cut a deal since he won't "rat" on his employer. The detective does make a mention of how methamphetamines take a tremendous toll on addicts -- inferring Thomas contributes to the misery. Thomas continues to contribute to human misery by not doing anything to stop his employer. So, Bradley Thomas comes off as a half-moral/half highly-immoral man. In the final analysis, he's an immoral man.
With no subtle irony, he pleads "nolo contendere" to the charges. The plea means "no contest" entails neither admitting guilt nor professing innocence. For all intents and purposes, it acts as the perfect plea for someone who walks a tightrope between hero and villain and moral and immoral. Regardless, a nolo contendere plea is really no different than a guilty plea. The 7-year sentence he receives reveals as much.
The justice system pegs Bradley Thomas correctly. He's guilty. He cannot be trusted outside of a cellblock. Regardless of his circumstances, motivations, and underlying moral code, he deserves his sentence and all the misery that goes with it.
A Potboiler Revisitation of "Crime and Punishment"
"You just lost your minimum freedom." So says the Warden played by Don Johnson at a pivotal moment in the film.
Entering prison to serve out his punishment lead to a new phase in Bradley Thomas' life. A path to enlightenment, self-discovery, and renewal it isn't. The second act seems to start out this way, but the direction of the narrative quickly changes. The potboiler nature of Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn't hide the direction of the story: violence and fight scenes are coming. The brawls don't come at the expense of eliminating the main character's deeper psychological journey.
Like the main character Raskolnikov of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Bradley Thomas' bad deeds serve to do things for a greater good. Both Thomas and Raskolnikov's stories involve murder, although Thomas never premeditates any murders. The denizen of Cell Block 99 is blackmailed by his former employer to commit one. Killing a dangerous criminal, a new crime, must be done to save the life of his wife and unborn child.
The anti-hero nature of Thomas takes root as his new mission and journey commences. Any audience member who feels a kinship with this struggling everyman steps into his metaphoric shoes. All those who dealt with life's adversities and was misunderstood -- as Thomas's violent actions and motivations are misunderstood -- cheer him on his painful journey. Thomas experiences great adversity to save his loved ones. He, himself, won't be escaping his plight once the mission ends. Thomas' lot on life, what remains of it, involves forever rotting in a prison cell.
Poor Choices and a Worse Life
Bradley Thomas receives sympathy from the viewer because he isn't purely evil and has become a victim out of a desire to do good. Regardless, the sympathy can be undeserved. He chose to break the law and associate with a drug kingpin. Thomas doesn't lack intelligence. He should have known his decision to become a drug mule would lead to disaster. Willful blindness due to an inflated sense of the self led him into his disastrous situation known as Brawl in Cellblock 99.
Bad decisions don't become good ones due to the noble motivations behind them. And what was the root of those noble motivations?
Thomas facilitated the movement of drugs through communities. For a profit, he aided the delivery of meth, cocaine, and heroin for personal profit. What comes from those personal profits? Ruined lives. Although his wife and unborn child are innocent victims, there are equally victims of Thomas' actions as they are to a criminal syndicate.
A cautionary tale lurks amidst the potboiler plot. Unfortunately, the cautions would be directed towards someone with the mindset of Bradley Thomas. Don't expect such a character to listen to any warnings. The decision to head down a path of crime and punishment emerges as the unavoidable forgone choice to this character.