DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE
Starring: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White, Jennifer Carpenter
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
“We’re monitoring a suspicious individual to figure out if he has any money he doesn’t need.”
Craig Zahler’s third directorial effort is an interesting step for him. It’s still well within the throwback, grindhouse, unfortunately reactionary framework he’s created, but Dragged Across Concrete (2018) is a more confident and sprawling film than we’ve gotten from him before.
The story has a simple hook for any sort of crime film. Police officers Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended after footage of them using excessive force during an arrest comes out. They both need money, so they take on a job to surveil and rob a rich criminal. When that criminal starts to pull off a heist, things don’t quite go as planned.
Zahler does a pretty masterful job when it comes to tension, sudden violence, and bury-your-face-in-a-pillow gore. The thing he seems to care about the most, though, is getting to know his characters. His writing style is purposely stylized, which can either work or fall flat depending on the actors or situation. Predominantly it works well. It’s the kind of hard-boiled shit Mickey Spillane would write with a flowery flourish added.
Dragged Across Concrete is absolutely Zahler’s take on a James Ellroy story. With all the problematic elements that implies more than intact. Our two leads are racist dinosaurs, and they make their opinions known. If that bothers you, then I totally understand. I’d just argue that the movie doesn’t glorify them or side with them; it just presents them as people. Extremely flawed people who make extremely flawed decisions.
The first half of the film has a very slow pace. Any genre film that’s close to two hours, let alone two-and-a-half hours, instantly makes me skeptical. While there are a few long dialogue scenes and long stakeouts that had my attention drifting a bit, Zahler was smart enough to lean on one of his strengths to keep this long build-up interesting. He’s great at painting small vignettes, whether it’s a quick and eerie scene of a masked man efficiently robbing a convenience store or just a character struggling to get back to work after maternity leave. These small tone pieces keep us interested in the proceedings and feed into the overall feeling of the film.
The second half is where it really lets loose, and it’s the reason why I’d call it Zahler’s best. Biscuit (Michael Jai White) and Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) are hired hands during the heist, who realize that they’re goners once the more ruthless members of the team are done with them. The tension is off-the-charts between Biscuit and Henry dealing with their situation in the car and Brett and Anthony trying to follow them and rob the robbers. It’s not a spoiler to say there’s some kind of a showdown at the end, and the tension ramps up even more.
The acting across the board is very good. We spend most of our time with Gibson, Vaughn, and Kittles, but White and Jennifer Carpenter also give great performances in the screentime they get. Gibson has that hardboiled, gravelly voice that works really well in a crime thriller, but I actually thought Vaughn was a little more convincing with the dialogue, while Gibson carried a lot of the silent action. There are also short scenes involving Fred Melamed and genre staples Don Johnson and Udo Kier.
I’m a fan of Zahler’s previous writer/director work in Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), but visually I feel like Dragged Across Concrete is a step forward. It’s still clearly a small budget film, but it manages to feel bigger. There are some great shots during the convenience store robbery, the opening section with Henry, and the final confrontation.
I enjoyed the film, and I believe it’s thematically more complicated than people who are concerned with Zahler’s politics would give it credit for, but that’s not to say that it’s thematically woke. Dragged Across Concrete almost wears the word “problematic” across its chest like a badge, which would be obnoxious if it wasn’t this good.