Director: S Craig Zahler
Stars: Mel Gibson, Tory Kittles, Vince Vaughn
Following brutal western Bone Tomahawk and the equally punishing exploitation flick Brawl In Cell Block 99, S Craig Zahler cements his position as poster-boy for America’s most violent impulses with this evocatively titled crime drama. This time the buddy cop movie is Zahler’s playground. Starring a mustachioed Mel Gibson partnered with a wise-ass Vince Vaughn, Dragged Across Concrete sets out its stylistic stall early on. We’re in the realm of deliciously verbose, hard-nosed dialogue, spoken by mean men armed with guns or baseball bats and received by women who are vulnerable, mostly naked and prone to terrible fates.
Having been filmed using exccessive force, officers Ridgeman (Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vaughn) are suspended. With their incomes cut-off, the two quickly turn to the criminal underworld to offset their losses. There’s an element of vigilantism to Ridgeman’s plan – rob the drug dealers that the law fails to prosecute – but this being a Zahler flick it all comes down to bloody violence in the end (that title proves grimly prescient). With the looming threat of a tower block as their target, the initial reference points that spring to mind are The Raid or Dredd. However, as things progress – and sprawl – Heat becomes a more apt comparison. The casting of Gibson – a problematic racist – is as savvy as it gets. It is even commented on, at a remove, when the duo bemoan cancellation culture to their police chief (Don Johnson). Within that there’s a valid point about responding to intolerance with more of the same. Dismissal without question only invites further division and blind eyes.
There’s blankness to Zahler’s cinema that tells of his characters’ moral vacuity and his apparent dim view of society. People inhabit featureless rooms. High ceilings, uncluttered carpets or walls of glass are accentuated. It’s also more beautiful than it ought to be. Zahler’s fondness for a medium shot maintains a consistency in this regard. This emptiness plays well with the movie’s slow burn pacing. It has the feel of an under-populated world, where there’s more time and space than people quite know what to do with. Even a scene of two characters sat next to one another in a car feels defined by the negative space between them. Witness, too, how a grocery store robbery ends in nihilistic gunfire; a masked criminal leisurely shooting up a refrigerator and a shelf of potato chips after the fact because, well, why not? It’s almost as if Ridgeman and Lurasetti are the only cops.
Ridgeman’s wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) speaks of her own erosion; a former liberal now weathered with experience of poor neighbourhoods and intimidation. The right-wing bent to Zahler’s cinema flourishes some here, where his acerbic cops bemoan androgynous pop songs and roll their eyes at the youth of today. But there’s a sense that Zahler is attempting to view these opinions from a place of neutrality. Witness how prissy Lurasetti is about Ridgeman touching his car after urinating in public, passing him hand wipes. A small gesture that undercuts the unfeeling tough-guy image and places the character in quotation marks. Ridgeman and his hand cannon, meanwhile, is both a celebration and mockery of John Wayne machismo in equal measure. Take him as you will.
Running as counterpoint to Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s plan is a thread starring Tory Kittles (True Detective) as ex-con Henry, similarly trying to maintain bread on the table by any means necessary. His journey will intersect with that of Zahler’s leads in the film’s blazing third act.
The peppering of comedy here (often times at the expense of male bravado) helps a great deal, and though his pursuit is leisurely, Zahler’s command of his characters and his story is deserving of admiration. Here we have the stuff of routine, direct to video actioners redressed as something artful and smart; something a little bit ‘extra’. There’s a conversation happening here, about the American political landscape, about what constitutes necessity, about the values of conservative machismo. If you can suffer the violence, misogyny and gore, Zahler continues to surprise, even as he further tilts to his own desires.