Few filmmakers working today are as crucial as S. Craig Zahler. Novelist, screenwriter and with Bone Tomahawk and Brawl In Cell Block 99, the director of two of the best films this decade has seen so far. A renaissance man for pulp cinema, he’s even had time to scratch out an excellent column for Fangoria magazine on homemade horror. In this reviewer’s opinion, only Jeremy Saulnier and Ben Wheatley can really give him a run for his money.
So with that in mind, it’s safe to say this writer went in with a bar set quite high for Dragged Across Concrete, another foray into the type of pulpy crime universe Zahler is making his own. Unfortunately, instead of clearing that bar with ease, Concrete ducks just underneath it.
Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are two detectives suspended from active duty after being captured on video using excessive force on a suspect. Ridgeman needs to move his family out of their bad neighbourhood and Lurasetti has an expensive wedding on the horizon, so with their ability to earn taken away from them, they turn to a less legal income stream. Working off a tip, they stake out a local drug lord, soon discovering what they thought would be a routine drug trade is in fact the preparation for an elaborate and savage bank robbery.
Zahler proved his approach to plot is a methodical one, with both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl In Cell Block 99 dragging us like dead weight toward confronting finales. But they also felt like every detail and every minute was imperative, serving a story that needed time to grow and evolve. Dragged Across Concrete is slow and without much purpose, running to a whopping 159 minutes, and boy does it feel like it.
The opening hour or so is especially lumpen and in need of a good prune. Scenes of the frighteningly attired bank robbers, conducting smaller revenue raising heists, are kinetic and entertaining on their own, but utterly meaningless in terms of the larger narrative. In another drawn out scene, the warm and fuzzies are trowelled onto a character in such clear expectation of an unpleasant outcome; it has all the finesse of your Dad on a wedding dancefloor. The result is cheap and manipulative.
Likewise, the early dialogue is problematic. With Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) railing against the world being too politically correct or complaining about being perceived a racist, it often comes across like the writer clunkily trying to make a point, rather than an authentic exchange between characters. While these characters are not exactly good guys, they’re not presented in an entirely unsympathetic fashion either, and that’s likely intentional, knowing Zahler’s previous work. Dragged Across Concrete is just trying to rile you up with the same vicious thrills and dodgy politics that have served the likes of Death Wish and other vigilante movies so well over the years. But even so, it’s disingenuous to avoid taking a stance on it, because if you have a scene like the one with Don Johnson’s monologue, you’ve already made a statement. It’s hard to not to have some reservations about what Zahler is trying to say here, particularly when you expect there are sections of the audience quite ready to take it at face value.
But let’s be clear, despite the problems, Dragged Across Concrete does pick up significantly. The second half irons out all of the early dialogue issues and starts to nail down characters in need of some likeability. And from there, Concrete is as cudgel blunt as it predecessors. So when things ramp up, they really ramp up. Once the robbery starts we transition from stodgy stake-out to chilling heist procedural. The sharp precision of the raid is intact, but rife with jagged spitefulness. It finally starts to feel like an S. Craig Zahler movie, but as though he took Michael Mann’s Heat and dragged it through a hedge.
There is also nothing to fault with the exceptional actors Zahler has at his disposal. The elephant in the casting room here is, of course, Gibson. Casting him is arguably a controversial move, as perhaps many of his hirings have been in the wake of his infamous and indefensible anti-Semitic and racist outbursts. Indeed, the argument to separate art from artist is a leaky one as nothing exists in a vacuum, but while Gibson has publicly and contritely apologized, this is not a review of (nor an apology for) his conduct. Simply that it is up to the individual to decide whether his presence makes this a movie worthy of your time. As an actor, it can’t be denied that he still has the chops for this sort of thing, bringing a weary, and not always pleasant demeanour to Ridgeman.
Following up his tour de force performance in Brawl in Cell Block 99, Vince Vaughn is once again in top form. He takes to Zahler’s rough universe as naturally as to the comedy on which he built his career. He was born to play in the dust of Zahler’s bullet-laced sandbox.
Where Dragged Across Concrete diverges from the norm is in the fact this is not just Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s story. We’re also given the perspective of the two men hired on as muscle by the mysterious criminal gang. Henry (Tory Kittles) and Biscuit (Michael Jai White) are on the other side of the law, but motivated by the same reasons as the cops – to help their families. They all enter into these events willingly, with violence as their last resort, and yet, inevitably, violence finds them all.
Dragged Across Concrete is aided by its second half pep; the crescendo of violence on which it rests is riveting, visceral and exciting. If this is your introduction to Zahler’s work, then you might well feel more generous toward it. It still offers some very good, hard-boiled crime pulp. There’s also nothing here to suggest Zahler isn’t still the exciting and essential filmmaker we know him to be, but the sluggish beginnings and ambiguous politics are harder problems to recover from. Dragged Across Concrete is decent, but doesn’t quite live up to expectations.