Bless writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s pulp heart for refusing to conform to what is supposed to be deemed acceptable in movies today. His first two movies, “Bone Tomahwak” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” were non-conformist depictions of violence raised to the level of art. Casting conservative actors like Vince Vaughn, Mel Gibson, and Kurt Russell in his films has irked people to no end; Zahler has been called every name in the book: A misogyniost, bigot, racist, sexist, and really, any terrible term deemed “alt-right” on Twitter. Sounds familiar? Quentin Tarantino had the same issues back in 1994 when his “Pulp Fiction” pushed the boundaries of distastefulness in cinema to create a landmark movie event. Zahler isn’t in the same league yet as QT, but his rebellious brand of avant-garde, right wing cinema is making a mark, whether people want to admit it or not.
Mel Gibson being cast as a down-and-out cop in Zahler’s "Dragged Across Concrete” may have had people turn their heads in disgust when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last August, but the notion of seeing Gibson playing an overt racist is, mind you, a stroke of solid casting. Gibson’s Brett Ridgeman, in fact, turns out to be the best performance the Aussie actor has given us in years, maybe decades.
Vince Vaughn and Gibson play cops who are suspended for excessive roughness on a person they were arresting. Their department head, played by Don Johnson, gives them an earful before taking away their badges and guns. The tense, exchange-filled scene between the three performers is filled with racial-rhetoric and a longing for the good old days when social media wouldn’t dictate what is right and what is wrong in society. Objectionable words are exchanged, but it develops Vaughn and Gibson’s complicated personas, which eventually leads them to the idea of robbing a dealer with a lot of dough. In essence, these two gullible and struggling working-class individuals can barely support their families; they want a new life and to stop being cops. At first, Tony is not sold on the idea but stays loyal to his partner. Juggling the ambitious story of two criminal schemes, which eventually violently converge at the climax, the movie also has Zahler concentrating on Henry (Tory Kittles), a young African American just out of jail, partnering up with Biscuit and the shady dealer that our two cops are about to rob.
This work of crime fiction from Zahler has been called “a right-wing fantasy,” but is it really? Rather, the work of Elmore Leonard comes to mind when describing the plot of “Dragged Across Concrete,” an immensely engrossing 158-minute film that flew by and felt like it was half the length.
Here’s a movie that feels so old-school and yet represents an advancement of the cinematic language Zahler is slowly but surely molding into his own. The action, as expected, is top-notch, especially in its epic, climactic shootout which must have lasted for, oh, I’d say a good 45 minutes. There’s a sense that Zahler does revel in shooting chaos on-screen, but never forgets the consequences that come with pulling the trigger. The compositions are tightly knitted, Zahler loves those static, fixed-focus shots with every frame almost feeling perfectly placed for the spectacular widescreen linearity of the film. It’s not just the visceral that impresses, the scenes of surveillance and pursuit by our two leads build up to, here’s the word again, an idiosyncratically expressive dialogue. Much like Tarantino’s fascination with words, at least back-in-the day, Zahler absolutely revels in watching his characters talk it out about anything and everything. It all amounts to a spectacularly timed chess-game, aided by the surreal set design, that also turns the film into a fascinating and legitimate conversation starter about American race relations, whether its detractors would like to admit it or not.
The film not only works as an idiosyncratic pulp-opera, but also as a slow-burning drama that makes watching these cops, slowly but surely disintegrate into a world of underground of violence, absolutely fascinating. [A-/B+]