Writer-director S. Craig Zahler loves muscular semantics. Adding to his collection of brawny pulp titles like Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) and Bone Tomahawk (2015) comes his most aggressive sounding yet with Dragged Across Concrete. And while his latest does pull back on the stomach-churning violence just a bit, it’s still a largely fierce examination of the tenuous boundary between cops and robbers and the innocent people trapped in the middle when these two sides converge.
As demonstrated in his previous films, Zahler also has a knack for shrewd casting. Employing Vince Vaughn once again in all his tall-drink-of-water-coolness that made him a snarling and convincingly good anti hero in Brawl in Cell Block 99, Vaughn here takes on the role of Tony, one half of a cop duo that also includes supremely jaded and exhausted older partner Ridgeman, played by Mel Gibson. Introduced in an opening scene that has them bantering like 40s noir private eyes as they crouch outside the fire escape window of a known drug dealer, it’s a relationship that stays apathetic most of the film, especially after their strong-arm tactics to arrest the dealer and intimidate his naked girlfriend are captured on cell phone camera by a neighbor.
Summarily suspended from their jobs (by a scene-stealing Don Johnson no less), it’s Ridgeman who hatches an elaborate scheme to tail and then steal whatever deal a visiting criminal (Thomas Kretschmann) plans to embark upon. How these two cops, a recently paroled ex-con (Tory Kittles) and some pretty cold blooded bank robbers cross paths ignites a second half that plays far better than the first. Dragged Across Concrete excels in high tension that’s incessantly deconstructed by self-reflexive dialogue and gun fights that feel messy, chaotic and more interesting for how the logistics of landscape constantly pose perplexing issues.
Outside of the swift and exacting violence that can land on anyone at any time, Dragged Across Concrete excels for the presence of Vaughn and Gibson. While they aren’t especially charismatic guys, Zahler employs a twisted sense of character engagement, studying if and when these good-guys-turned-maybe-bad-guys will shift their grievances back into law enforcement mode as the bodies and bullets fly. We don’t care for them as much as we really dislike the bank robbers, but their conversations and repartee are rich with implied history and generosity for each other’s backs.
Less successful is Zahler’s many attempts of rationalization for each character’s placement in the heist. First half longueurs with Gibson’s family, including a daughter suffering at the hands of rotten apples in her increasingly squalid part of town and a sickly wife (Laurie Holden) and, even less revealing, Vaughn’s relationship with his girlfriend, seemingly serve as fervored elements to an overly stuffed narrative whose running time — 2 hours and 40 minutes — feels unduly expansive.
In keeping with his exploitative streak, Dragged Across Concrete also features one of the more repellent character fates in recent memory. Without spoiling things, needless to say, Zahler is far removed from wanting to make friends with any subset of movie-goers other than those looking for nihilistic thrills. It’s a turn that is ultimately gasp-inducing and then a little dishonest in its savagery.
All that aside, there’s still much to like in the film. Zahler’s sense of space, silence between characters and unexpected tonal shifts, wherein the film becomes a sort of inverted procedural, in which the cops observe a crime from the inside out, are relished. For all the minimal statements about racial divide and police brutality, Dragged Across Concrete ultimately only cares about its very basic pulp machinations, which it has in spades.
Dragged Across Concrete opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, March 22 at the Texas Theatre.