Very quickly into his filmmaking career, S Craig Zahler proved himself unafraid of courting unease with reactionary politics baked into his ultraviolent narratives, but he’s really outdone himself on the controversy-baiting front with Dragged Across Concrete. Casting Mel Gibson as a racially insensitive cop and promising a story about police brutality and accountability, there will be people who, justifiably, reject Dragged Across Concrete flat out. In fact, though, the politics of policing make up only a fraction of the film’s story, and I found there to be just enough self-awareness in amongst the characters’ right-wing rhetoric to still thoroughly enjoy the carnage-fuelled mystery within.
Caught on video using excessive force, detectives Ridgeman (Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended for six weeks without pay. Suddenly faced with a huge monetary shortfall – Ridgeman needs to move house and Lurasetti is planning to propose – they set their sights on robbing wealthy heroin dealer Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). Of course, Vogelmann turns out to be a sadistic international crime lord, commanding men with military grade gear on a mission to nab millions of dollars worth of gold bullion. Meanwhile, two local smalltime criminals, Henry (Tory Kittles, tremendous) and Biscuit (Michael Jai White), get way in over their heads as drivers for Vogelmann’s gang.
It’s a story packed with genuine intrigue, and it’s gripping even without the action as all the pieces of the mystery slot into place. While Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 were almost videogame-like in their ‘go here, kill this, rescue her’ plotting, Dragged Across Concrete is more layered, taking its time to build the heightened reality of its world. Like Brawl, it exists in a world not quite our own, filled with brilliantly surreal and desolate buildings. Strangely, there’s also something progressive about this alternate reality – the punishment meted out to Ridgeman and Lurasetti for breaking a Latino suspect’s nose is harsher than a lot of real American cops get for shooting black men in the back.
Zahler’s script is mordantly funny and packed with sharp one-liners – the lion’s share of which go to Vince Vaughn. As in Brawl, Vaughn makes for an excellent grindhouse action hero, unflappable and dangerous and a lot smarter than he looks. He also shares an easy, amusing chemistry with Gibson, even if the oddness of seeing Mel back in front of the camera never quite wears off. There’s a line of meta humour about Gibson’s very casting that will prove divisive, to say the least.
Audiences have come to expect extravagant, jaw-dropping brutality from a Zahler film but, though there are still plenty of gory moments, this is his least violent effort yet. That’s saying something about his career when Dragged Across Concrete still features a prolonged disembowelment played for dark laughs and hands being blown off by high-calibre weapons, but Zahler has made room for a more stomachable plot and action scenes. These showdowns are heart in mouth thrilling, elevated by original ideas that manage to make even a bank robbery scene feel fresh.
Dragged Across Concrete is not a film you can casually recommend. It’s long and nasty and makes no concessions to political correctness. How seriously you think it takes itself is key to how much enjoyment you can get out of it because, taken at face value, this is the cinematic equivalent of a drunk bigot at a pub. But, if you’re willing to give Zahler the benefit of the doubt and be pushed out of your comfort zone, it’s also an immensely entertaining and well-plotted thrill ride.