S. Craig Zahler has been a director who I have been banging the drum for since adoring his hybrid horror-western, Bone Tomahawk. Zahler’s hard-knuckled follow-up, Brawl in Cell Block 99, also landed in my Best of the Year list for 2017. As for Zahler’s third outing as director and writer, the Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn starring Dragged Across Concrete, I found this hard work. I’ll be honest, out of the three films we’ve gotten out of Zahler so far, Dragged Across Concrete is my least favourite. First, I don’t think that’s a big surprise for me: this tough and cynical neo-noir thriller has been divisive. Some think it’s an engaging exploitation crime flick that asks the question “are these characters remotely redeemable?”. Whilst the opposite side think it’s a sexist, racist, and bigoted patience tester, running over 2 hours and a half hours.
Unfortunately, I found myself in the latter camp. The film is too long for its own good, and the characters spout vile opinions that set off alarm bells. For example, in the opening 20 minutes, Gibson and Vaughn bust a drug operation, with Gibson roughing up a drug dealer and handcuffing him to the railing outside the building. As Gibson and Vaughn work their way through the apartment, they shower the dealer’s partially deaf and topless Mexican girlfriend with cold water, proceeding to inadvertently mock her accent when she is telling them where the drugs are stashed.
Suffice to say, it’s nasty stuff, but this is also Dragged Across Concrete’s inciting incident. Gibson and Vaughn play two budding cops, Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti. The unnecessarily rough drug bust suspends them from duty when a witness sends a video of the pair’s antics to the media. Low on money and unhappy with where they are living, Ridgeman and Lurasetti decide to go rogue and fight crime to sustain financial stability for their families. Meanwhile, a newly released ex-convict from prison, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), reconnects with an old friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White), for a secretive job as bank heist getaway drivers. Ridgeman and Lurasetti catch wind of the bank plot and decide to go after the money themselves, getting involved with the remorseless and callous bank robbers.
Dragged Across Concrete is what is as it says on the title – the film tortures the audience slowly in its tenser parts. I like to think of it as an Abel Ferrara crime movie directed by Béla Tarr; Zahler uses widescreen cinematography to show the distance between cops and robbers, they are always circling around the riches like a pack of vultures. Ridgeman and Lurasetti sit in the front of their SUV with a DSLR (Camera) on the dashboard, anticipating what the sinister thugs are up to. Whilst the criminals, headed by a forgettable Thomas Kretschmann, are committing horrendous murders in the build-up to the heist, making sure that there are no loose ends before the big event.
When Zahler is at his best, his films grab your attention and refuse to let you go until the film is over. The climax where the law and the lawless confront each other is electric. The rhythm of the scene is lumbering, and that creates a sense of uncertainty with the viewer. At any minute, a hail of bullets can kill Ridgeman or Lurasetti. But where I have difficulty with Zahler is the right wing stance the film takes. Zahler portrays African Americans and women in a cynical light, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I especially didn’t like the portrayal of women in this, they are either humiliated or complained about. Jennifer Carpenter has a side performance as an over-emotional mother to a new-born. Her partner keeps forcing her out the door because she keeps skipping work, putting on a lock-and-chain mechanism to keep Carpenter out of her apartment. Whilst Carpenter portrays her character well, I can’t escape the feeling that Zahler is sticking his nose up at these people. He delegates Carpenter to one-to-two scenes making the portrayal and the commentary more noticeable, and I can’t agree with Dragged Across Concrete’s political incorrectness.
I recommend Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 over this. At least with both those films, Zahler’s world views felt properly integrated, and he did not delegate them to a side character who hardly has a couple of scenes. Dragged Across Concrete is a hard pill to swallow. It’s fascinating for sure, and Gibson and Vaughn are well cast and efficient in their performances. However, the more I think about the film after watching it, the less I like it. I would say proceed with caution with Dragged Across Concrete, it’s not to be taken lightly if you are unfamiliar with Zahler’s previous films.