‘This is excessive,” dryly notes Vince Vaughn during the climax of Dragged Across Concrete, though it isn’t even the most excessive part of this really quite excessive film. If you show up for something called Dragged Across Concrete, you had better be prepared for anything.
Yet this gritty, intense tale of cops gone bad isn’t quite as shocking as either of the two previous efforts from the imaginatively brutal writer-director S. Craig Zahler. In 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, Zahler staged the single most unsettling torture-murder I’ve ever seen on screen. Zahler’s sophomore effort, Brawl in Cell Block 99, was breathtakingly violent, but was also pulp perfection. His third film, Dragged Across Concrete (which is debuting this week both in theaters and on video-on-demand platforms) doesn’t gush with blood, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t gratuitously unpleasant. In particular, the mistreatment of two female characters is so nauseating that I suspect the female audience for this movie will be fairly close to nil. Even in movies in which bodies pile up like cordwood, there is something infuriating about the abuse of an innocent lady.
So beware, but also take notice, because Zahler is the most bewitching maker of B movies working right now. This gripping but difficult movie melds 1970s grindhouse cinema with the harshly funny wisecracks of hardboiled 1940s Raymond Chandler detective noir. Two cynical, deadpan detectives, Brett (Mel Gibson) and Anthony (Vince Vaughn), get suspended for roughing up a Latino suspect in an incident that goes viral after being filmed by a witness. Anthony, who is planning to propose to his girlfriend, is happy to wait it out. But Brett, increasingly bitter about living in a neighborhood where his daughter can’t walk home from school safely, is determined to use his time off to rob some drug dealers so he can move to a better place.
The chief problem with the movie is that it’s hard to get a purchase on Brett, whom Gibson plays with a growl and an unlovely security-guard mustache. He’s not a wicked anti-hero who lacks any moral compass, but neither is he a good man forced into the abyss; the last straw for him is that his daughter gets a soda dumped on her, so he’s not exactly as well-motivated as Charles Bronson in Death Wish. As Brett, fond of reducing everything to a number, might put it, he’s maybe 30 percent good.
That’s strange in-between territory for the protagonist of a film; are we supposed to be on his side even when he makes decisions that result in the death of innocents? His mistakes don’t cause woe simply by accident. As for Vaughn’s Anthony — 60 percent good — he keeps trying to nudge Brett back on the right path, but Brett won’t have it. At the plot’s inflection point, the older man tells his young partner that anything they do from that point on is strictly for the payoff, not loyalty or friendship.
You’ll have to be unusually patient with Dragged Across Concrete to figure out what it’s up to, which becomes clear only in the closing minutes of a movie that’s almost as long as Michael Mann’s Heat. It would be wrong, though, to think of Dragged as a thrift-store Heat. Both movies turn their focus from cops to robbers and back again, both give a wide array of characters the space to breathe. There is a particularly heartbreaking interlude in which Zahler turns the movie over to a subsidiary figure only to subvert a convention of the genre.
Heat seduces us with glamour — beautiful people, clothes, beach houses. There is a clear hero and an opposing villain, both top-level professionals. Dragged makes the opposite choices. Though each side is led by an expert, plans get chewed up by chaos, criminal adventures being far more difficult to control than other movies would have us believe. Brett’s confident assessments that this or that event’s likelihood is “70 percent” or “85 percent” ring increasingly hollow. At some level this seen-it-all detective just doesn’t know what he’s doing but won’t acknowledge it. In a sense, the movie rebuts Heat the way Goodfellas rebutted The Godfather. “The mess is the message” was Martin Amis’s take on Scorsese’s film.
Gibson’s performance here is one of his best: mean and sparse. Liberated from being pretty, and no longer in demand at the studios, he might make for an intriguing character actor in low-budget movies like this one. His off-screen history also makes him a strong candidate for movies that deal with race, as this one obliquely does. Throughout Dragged, the two white cops and the white mastermind of the bank heist casually flaunt their racism. In between are two black guys (Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White) hired by the robbers as drivers. They absorb insults, get their grammar corrected, and are generally written off as lacking the gumption to think for themselves. “It’s good to be underestimated” turns out to be the hidden lesson of the story.
All this in a movie in which Vaughn’s character swears, “I’m not racist. On Martin Luther King Day I order a cup of dark roast.” Movies with racial themes these days have a cloud of panic about them and scramble desperately to signal their virtue. This one, which gives racists plenty to snicker at only to pull the rug out from under them, is much sneakier. Instead of drawing its black characters as hapless victims, it suggests they have more agency than anyone knows. Dragged Across Concrete isn’t a perfect pulp movie, but there’s more going on here than tough-talking detectives and ruthless criminals.