Canada/US | 2018 | directed by S. Craig Zahler
Logline: Following suspension for excessive force two police officers embark on a dangerous mission to extract what they feel they are owed in compensation.
For his third feature writer/director Zahler is still comfortable as all hell in delivering a movie that continues to push the boundaries of how a genre movie should play out. His debut feature was a Western with a brutal spine of horror, whilst his second was a punishing prison drama that wrestles with the tropes of exploitation. For his latest, he takes the crime thriller and stretches it out until it almost snaps, a whopping two-hours-and-forty-odd minutes, where the action is kept to a minimum, but the journey is compelling as hell.
Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are cop buddies working the streets and back alleys of Bulwark (a fictitious city somewhere in US). Ridgeman is the jaded, embittered veteran, struggling to provide for his disabled wife and bullied teenage daughter. Lurasetti is the younger, cocksure, opportunistic partner. On a drug bust the volatile Ridgeman uses police brutality, and Lurasetti indulges him. They further their bad behaviour by humiliating the suspect’s girlfriend. It’s all caught on tape by a neighbour, and due to a media blow-up, their superior, Calvert (Don Johnson), is forced to suspend them both without pay.
Almost immediately Ridgeman concocts a plan to use their criminal connections and underworld savvy to make some quick serious cash. Ridgeman sees it as justice for their past services, and now, in limbo, they must make amends, Ridgeman for his family, whilst Lurasetti has a fiancé. Meanwhile a couple of African-American ex-cons, Johns (Tory Kittles) and Biscuit (Michael Jai White) become involved in an elaborate bank heist, for a dangerous, cold-blooded career criminal, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann).
The officers, operating rogue, take it upon themselves to pursue the bank robbers, in order to serve both justice, and to fill their pockets. However, the long arm of Murphy’s Law seizes them by the collar. The heist claims extensive collateral damage, and Ridgeman and Lurasetti soon find themselves in the deep, dark end of the criminal pool, with just their wits and wiles, and some solid firepower, at their disposal.
Let’s call a spade a spade, Zahler makes studies of extreme violence. His realms are governed by men, and women very much play second fiddle. He’s not interested in dramatic licence, intent on capturing a gritty realism, yet there is savage poetry at play. His dialogue is always very particular, existential, almost meta, injecting his movies with a stylised edge, and there’s a buried, oh so tenebrous sense of humour. One is drawn to making a comparison to the movies of Quentin Tarantino, especially with the dialogue and violence, but whereas Tarantino’s movies operate as vivid adult cartoons, Zahler’s movies feel like they’ve been lifted from hardboiled novels, stained with black coffee and straight bourbon.
Dragged Across Concrete is not just about police brutality, racism and sexism rear their nasty heads. The insidiousness of prejudice, the mechanics of corrupt masculinity and bravado. Ridgeman’s wife says at one point, “I never thought I was a racist until I moved into this neighbourhood,” and there’s an ugly honesty within her sarcasm. This is a world seemingly without hope, and Zahler relishes the darkness before the dawn. But what makes the film so much more interesting than most of the other crime thrillers that attempt similar narratives (although usually in half the time) is Zahler injects a palpable sense of menace and impending doom, right from the beginning, and he sustains that tension, an implicit violence, through the course of the movie, releasing it a few times in sudden, shocking punctuations of explicit violence.
Bone Tomahawk put Zahler on the map, and it’s a terrific movie, and although Brawl in Cell Block 99 has many fans, I would champion Dragged Across Concrete as his strongest, most impressive movie to date, with Gibson and Vaughn in fine form. It’s definitely not for everyone, it’s a bitter pill, but for those who like their crime flicks uncompromising and hard as fucking nails, Zahler’s muscle flex will be the bittersweet reward.