Since bursting onto the scene with Bone Tomahawk in 2015, S. Craig Zahler has made a name for himself as a distinct storyteller and provocateur. He makes slow-paced, character-driven exploitation movies that are peppered with eruptions of brutal violence and questionable politics. It goes without saying that they aren’t for everyone, but he’s garnered a dedicated fan base in that time. With his latest opus, Dragged Across Concrete, he’s delivered another slice of slow-burn pulp that’s bound to divide audiences and cause some controversy. That was always going to happen, though.
The story follows detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who find themselves suspended without pay for six weeks after a video of them strong-arming a Latino perp finds its way to the media. Without money to live on or much luck in the way of future job prospects, they decide to turn to the life of crime and put their skills to effective use. However, this puts them on a collision course with gang-bangers Henry (Tory Kittles), Biscuit (Michael Jai White), and some ruthless masked killers, all of whom are also out to get paid and aren’t willing to split the profits.
From this foundation, Dragged Across Concrete presents a multidimensional narrative featuring an array of protagonists and antagonists who all receive ample attention. The plot isn’t complex at all, but the movie spends the majority of the running time getting to know its characters in-depth, including those who add no real significance to the overall story. Some throwaway characters are given a big introduction only to be met with a swift, sudden, merciless demise, but moments like this are what makes Dragged Across Concrete so compelling: even the bit-part members of its populace feel like three-dimensional human beings, and their brief stories are worth our emotional investment.
Zahler is also a master when it comes to humanizing some pretty morally questionable folks. Every backstory here is a tale of people trying to escape a rut, and the actions and motivations of these criminals are given strong justification and sympathy. This is a movie that wants us to root for two opposing factions who will eventually come to blows with each other. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself hoping that everyone finds their happily ever after.
A substantial portion of the breezy 159-minute running time revolves around our corrupt dicks sitting in cars, staking out their targets, exchanging buddy cop lingo, and eating sandwiches. Like all good heist movies, the crime is carefully planned before the real action commences. When shit eventually hits the fan, we’re treated to thrilling shootouts and bloodshed. Despite being the most violently-titled film in Zahler’s oeuvre, though, it’s his least gruesome project yet. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s tame either, as limbs are blown off and people are disemboweled, but it’s not quite as depraved as his previous outings. Still, gorehounds won’t be disappointed by any means.
Unfortunately, we can’t discuss a Zahler movie without mentioning its potentially offensive aspects. Bone Tomahawk is a western which features white heroes on a quest to butcher Native cannibalistic savages. Brawl In Cell Block 99 centers around a white patriot who beats up minorities to prevent a Korean abortionist from killing his unborn baby. Elsewhere, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which he wrote, is a gore-fest about Nazi puppets laying waste to marginalized groups. While Zahler has repeatedly stated that he’s fascinated with writing material that makes him feel uncomfortable, it’s completely understandable why some people think he’s a right-wing filmmaker.
Dragged Across Concrete contains its fair share of politically incorrect and confrontational moments, too. There’s a scene where Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s lieutenant (played by Don Johnson) compares accusations of racism in the modern age to those of communism in the ‘50s. Characters also criticize gender politics and make throwaway racist jokes (“I order a dark roast every Martin Luther King Day.”). That’s to name a few scenes, and naturally, this has led some reviewers to condemn the movie as a racist, right-wing fantasy.
However, Zahler’s work is much more nuanced than his naysayers would have you believe. Go read his novels and countless unproduced screenplays for a wider picture. Dragged Across Concrete, however, is his best work to-date for presenting a world of conflicting ideologies and characters with differing viewpoints. A film featuring police brutality that stars two outspoken Hollywood conservative actors as antihero cops has already led people to make assumptions that this is something that it’s not. Maybe the casting is a tad on-the-nose, but the movie doesn’t have an agenda that endorses the behavior of the characters or the politics of the actors playing them.
The only overarching viewpoint in Dragged is nihilism. We’re introduced to characters from all walks of life — ranging from vile racists to underprivileged people of color — who have been dealt a crappy hand in life, which causes them to do bad things to better their respective situations. The film’s worldview is one of bleakness and misfortune for everyone whether they’re cops, sympathetic crooks, or everyday civilians. It’s not a pleasant world to be in, but it is a compelling one that leaves us with plenty to ponder.
If there’s one thing Zahler is great at it’s bringing out the best in his performers. The performances are excellent across the board here. Gibson and Vaughn have great chemistry together as our buddy cop duo, and they’re given some terrific hard-boiled dialogue to work with. However, it’s Gibson who steals the show as a chain-smoking, weathered, sympathetic macho man who’s unable to change with the times. Say what you will about the man himself, but few actors play tortured and worn out as well as him. Kittles is another standout, and he’s also given some terrific novel-esque dialogue to chew while stealing every scene he’s in.
Ultimately, Dragged Across Concrete is a movie that’s going to stir some controversy and incite a flurry of opinions on all sides of the political debate. Movies that operate in this kind of moral grey area inspire all kinds of interpretations, and that was probably Zahler’s intention from the get-go. It’s also further proof that he’s a filmmaker who marches to the beat of his own drum, and one who’s unafraid to challenge the moral positions of his audience. Whether it’s strong appreciation, hateful ire, or frustration, this movie will inspire some loud reactions.
Still, if you just want to see a great crime epic that cares more about telling a great story than promoting an agenda, you’ll want to check out Dragged Across Concrete. It’s going to be a contender for the best of 2019 when it’s all said and done, even if some viewers will feel guilty about enjoying it so much.