Travis Leamon // Film Critic
DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE
Rated R, 159 minutes.
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White, Thomas Kretschmann, Jennifer Carpenter, Laurie Holden, Fred Melamed, Udo Kierand Don Johnson
Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.
Filmmaker S. Craig Zahler freely admits that he isn’t out to make crowd-pleasing hits. You won’t find him directing superhero tales or a four-quadrant movie. He makes movies for himself. If others gravitate to them, that’s on them. Zahler thinks like a novelist telling the stories that interest him.
His previous works, BONE TOMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, felt like they were confiscated from sleazy grindhouse theaters – both are violent, brutal and full of B-movie aesthetics. Zahler has mashed Western with horror and has squeezed more juice and pulp out of a prison thriller than one could get from a naval orange.
Now, he turns his attention to cops and robbers. Not the game we used to play as kids because Zahler’s take is no child’s play. The title alone gives off an unshakable impression. If video stores were still in existence and you stumbled upon something called DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE on the shelf, you’d snatch it up and hightail it to the cashier. But a word of caution: Those who have ADD or are looking for kinetic shootouts and car chases every five minutes, you will be bored to tears. At 158 minutes it’s Zahler’s longest film to date, and it may be his most composed and self-indulgent feature.
Every character, even one that shows up far late into the proceedings, has relevance. You may not be clear as to why or the purpose, yet the inclusion has a deeper meaning than serve as a stock character. I know a few that will steer clear of Zahler’s latest and it has nothing to do with it being too long. Mel Gibson’s casting as one of the three primary characters – and playing a racist-bent cop no less – signals a red flag. The Oscar winner’s sordid past of making homophobic comments and racist rants has made the once box-office draw a Hollywood pariah. And that line separating art from the artist is fine no longer; it’s more like concrete: jagged and cracked. Gibson plays Brett Ridgeman, a veteran cop in the fictional town of Bulwark who is too poor to retire and too old to be perched on fire escapes apprehending drug dealers. Once a young policeman, now he’s just too old for this sh*t.
The fire escape is where we find him as his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), arrives with a coffee. Brett is a little too rough with the suspect during the arrest, all of which is filmed by a neighbor. The video gets back to their chief (Don Johnson) who puts them both on unpaid suspension but not before the three ruminate on the political correctness of protecting and serving the community. The scene with all three subtly stokes the fire of going too far on the job and losing perspective.
Anthony is young and aspires to a certain lifestyle that he knows is unobtainable in his profession. His is a future with more take-out than fine dining. Brett is a dinosaur that feels cheated in his profession and life, carrying for a wife (Laurie Holden) with MS and a teenage daughter. He’s at a point where playing politics no longer matters. With no restraints holding him back, Brett is out to rob a money exchange. Hello, retirement; goodbye, Bulwark.
Meanwhile, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has returned home after a short stint behind bars. Crossing the threshold of his mom’s apartment, he finds her working as a prostitute while his wheelchair-bound little brother sits in the adjacent room playing video games. Henry, dismayed, is going to change the situation, but it will require him to re-up with a childhood friend (Michael Jai-White) and do something criminal.
Brett and Henry are on a collision course. Two men with different MOs. One white, the other black. Does the plight of one supersede the other? Both characters have seen their man of the house rank tarnished because of the penitentiary; Brett’s career of collars and arrests and Henry’s time in jail has impacted both households. Their reasons for breaking laws for a quick monetary score may be different, but the end is the same: financial stability. Anthony is there, too, but his participation is insurance that his friend doesn’t get himself killed. He knows it’s a bad idea — like “lasagna in a can” bad — and yet, after a little consideration, he leaves the shallows for the deep end.
Speaking of men of the house, Zahler explores the other side with Jennifer Carpenter as a working wife who can’t embrace that life again after the birth of her son. Her mommy anxiety grabs hold so tight that going back to work feels like punishment. Her insertion into the story provokes a constrained dichotomy of how women should act and be perceived. Not many filmmakers would have made time to insert a character so late into the narrative and make it seem like a pivotal development. Then again, Zahler is not an ordinary filmmaker.
The confidence Zahler shows in his direction continues to grow with each new feature. Benji Bakshi, who has lensed all three of Zahler’s films, gives breadth to the proceedings without the need to call attention. Since the majority of CONCRETE takes place behind the wheel, with Brett and Anthony staking out and monitoring the players for the impending money exchange, the fluidity in their day-to-day actions is absorbing in its banality. Watching, napping, and eating food. (The way Vaughn eats an egg salad sandwich is like watching a casual affair — so wrong, yet so right). Brett and Anthony are work husbands, and their interplay explores each man’s quirks accordingly. The seasoned pro looks at things from a logistical perspective, offering percentages of the likelihood something will or won’t happen. Anthony and his Italian heritage allow him to decry “Anchovies” in place of an expletive when things veer the wrong way. Their dichotomy and Zahler’s clever wordplay add up to incredible chemistry.
Yes, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is a long and drawn-out cops and robbers movie. It is an endurance race, challenging you with its pacing and mentally with its themes. The suggestive commentary Zahler offers about race, political correctness, gender expectations, and morality twists and swells like varicose veins. His intended or unintended provocations are likely to disquiet some and upset others. But not this writer. I applaud Zahler and his abilities to take the classic tough guy archetype from classic crime fiction (think Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) and place him in today’s world where, when it’s all said and done, being dragged across concrete will seem incidental.
Movie Grade: A
Much like S. Craig Zahler’s previous films, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE had a limited release. Lionsgate, who acquired the film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, released it day-and-date in theaters and VOD in March. Its Blu-ray release doesn’t have many special features aside from two featurettes.
The first is a by-the-numbers EPK about the problems that arise when making cinema that challenges perceptions. Soundbites include Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, and S. Craig Zahler chatting about the halcyon days of guy movies from the likes of John Boorman (DELIVERANCE), Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY), and Walter Hill (48 HRS).
The other piece, “Elements of a Crime,” is a three-parter that overviews the production, from its genesis to the performers to Zahler’s stylistic touches (like the non-use of music unless it is part of a scene – inside a diner or car).
Please note that you should watch the movie first before digging into this 40-minute extra. Spoilers abound.
Extras Grade: C