Dragged across Concrete

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn

Dragged across Concrete is a bit of a masterpiece, an urgent, drily funny, brutal, dirty and often ugly film full of horrible people, whom we nevertheless root for because writer/director S Craig Zahler focuses on the relationships rather than the genre aspects of this admittedly big genre beast of a movie.

Zahler – he’s called that by everyone, apparently (his mum too?) – has done this before. In 2015’s Bone Tomahawk he re-worked the western, switching out of what you might call Revisionist Indian mode (they’re all noble, sinned against etc) into something far less PC and much more gruesome. If you’ve seen it, I’ll just say “that scene where…” and leave it at that. If you haven’t seen it, brace yourself.

Then came 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, in which a gym-buff Vince Vaughn (with a crucifix tattoo on his shaved head) atoned for all those terrible rom-coms and bromances in a prison drama of spectacular brutality.

Vaughn is back here, along with other members of what are now known as the Zahler Players – Don Johnson, Jennifer Carter, Fred Melamed, Udo Kier – again in a starring role, this time for a cop movie, alongside Mr Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson. They’re a pair of bad cops who lose their badges after being caught in smartphone footage being less than polite to (standing on the head of) a drug dealer they were arresting.

Ridgeman (Gibson) – broke, worn out after too many long years without any promotion, with a sick wife at home and a daughter who’s being bullied in the shitty neighbourhood his meagre salary confines him to – does not take it well. He snaps, in fact, and embarks on a get-rich-quick scheme that involves robbing a known heroin dealer. He talks his slightly reluctant buddy, Lurasetti (Vaughn), into going along too, the pair of them unaware that their target (Thomas Kretschmann) has decided to branch out into bullion heisting, aided by some incredibly brutal henchmen.

On the other side of town, fresh out of jail, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is being recruited by homie Biscuit (Michael Jai White) to act as drivers for the bank job Ridgeman and Lurasetti are heading towards unawares. And on yet another side of town, a new mother (Jennifer Carpenter) is going back to work after extended maternity leave. She works at… you guessed it… the bank.

All collide spectacularly. And the fallout is biblical.

Henry threatens a man with a baseball bat
Henry isn’t happy with the company his mother is keeping



What comes across at first like Tarantino-esque dialogue – people saying unnecessary things – turns out to have a proper dramatic purpose. We get to know everyone heading towards the shitshow intimately – home life, relationships, hopes and fears – from the extreme reluctance of Kelly (Carpenter) to leave her newborn child behind, to Lurasetti’s plans to propose to his smart girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones), to Henry’s home life with his mother and wheelchair-using brother. Zahler knows how to build tension through these relationships, and through a camera that barely moves until it has to.

Gibson and Vaughn, often eating, getting food or talking about it, are the main event, with Gibson particularly good as the bone-dry world weary cop who’s almost a cliché of unwoke attitudes. I think that’s called baggage.

Deadpan black comedy at one level, not even vaguely funny at another, Dragged across Concrete walks the line. When a gun goes off in this film it does appalling damage, when a man is shot in the chest you can hear the air whistling in and out of his lungs.

Zahler and regular DP Benji Bakshi shoot it all so dark that figures are often rendered as silhouettes. There’s barely a brightly lit scene, hardly any action taking place during daytime, and even when night does eventually turn into day, suddenly it’s night again, as if some terrible mistake by God has been rectified by the film makers.

Great though Bone Tomahawk was, this is better.



Dragged across Concrete – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Boss Level

Roy puts an opponent to the sword


For those days when you just want something entertaining – Boss Level, a new Joe Carnhan movie that gives us the familiar Carnahan formula, action plus buffoonery, delivered with a deadpan rictus by a new arrival in geri-action heroics – Frank Grillo.

Grillo plays Roy Pulver, a guy who wakes up every day to the same scenario – a “machete wielding asshole” trying to kill him, followed by an encounter with a helicopter gunship, followed by a deadly explosion and a fall from a high window, after which he’s chased down city streets in fast cars by gun-toting bad guys determined to kill him.

That’s if they haven’t already killed him. Because Pulver has lived through this day before and will live through it again. He’s locked inside a Groundhog Day with extreme prejudice, or closer to the mark is the Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow (whose subtitle: Live Die Repeat is the plot of Boss Level), learning as he goes, surviving just a bit longer than he did the day before – wisdom is power etc.

The reasons have to do with a machine that “unmakes” time, developed by the love of his life but now estranged partner, Jemma (Naomi Watts), and owned and wielded by asshole uberlord Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). Or at least Ventor thinks he controls it – in fact things are way out of his control and unbeknown to him Jemma has inserted Roy into the machine and… 

Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson
Badass meets bad guy



You don’t need to know, though you might ask yourself the question at one point, how come all these people are after Roy in his die-rinse-repeat life if Ventor hasn’t got wind of something.

No, no, we really don’t need to go there. Instead let’s marvel at Grillo’s abs, which are fab for a guy in his 50s and look like the result of some human growth hormone dare. Grillo is in fact a hugely likeable lead, trying to be cool so hard that you start feel for him. In a brief interchange with his estranged son at a gamer convention (Grillo’s real son Rio making his screen debut), son Joe asks dad Roy if he’s a badass “like Liam Neeson”. Roy laughs at the comparison, and we laugh back, since that’s pretty much the sort of film this is, just with more hardware and a higher bodycount, the “particular set of skills” being the same.

The screenplay – Carnahan plus Chris and Eddie Borey – knows how to write to our prejudices, in other words. Like the slow turnaround intro it gives to Gibson, the sort of thing designed to raise a round of applause or chorus of boos – either way it works as theatre.

There’s a totemic aspec to Gibson too, since Carnahan is the inheritor of all those 1980s cocaine fuelled actioners of the Lethal Weapon sort, and in film after film – like Smokin’ Aces, Stretch and The A Team – has never allowed plausibility to get in the way of a bit of out and out entertainment.

There’s also a debt owed to the trashier side of Tarantino – the esoteric music choices (Badfinger, at one point) and the characters’ tendency to never shut up.

There are good films, there are important films and there are films like this – pure kinetic entertainment with lots of gadgets, lots of action and an understanding that if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing fast.

Good also to know is that Carnahan’s next film, Cop Shop, is already in post-production, and teams Grillo up with Gerard Butler for what will surely be an artery-clogging knuckle-feast of badassery, and after that Carnahan is taking on a remake of Gareth Evans’s epic action spectacular The Raid.





Boss Level – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Million Dollar Hotel

Milla Jovovich in The Million Dollar Hotel

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

7 June

 

Groundbreaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993

On this day in 1993, the groundbreaking ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place, in Cleveland, Ohio. It was attended by Pete Townshend, Chuck Berry, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Dave Gardner (the Coasters), Billy Joel, Sam Phillips, Ruth Brown and Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum). The hall had been proposed in 1983 by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, with a view to capturing an ephemeral art form – or of confirming that rock and roll wasn’t ephemeral at all, take your pick – and the first “exhibits” in the museum had been inducted in 1986. Originally inductees would belong to one of four categories: performers, non-performers, early influences and lifetime achievement. “Sidemen” were added in 2000. In year one Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley were inducted. Since then fewer have been admitted – Aretha Franklin arrived in 1987, the Beatles in 1988, John Lee Hooker in 1991, Janis Joplin in 1995, Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997, Michael Jackson in 2001, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 2007, Abba in 2010, Donna Summer in 2013. Evidently, the induction committee’s definition of “Rock and Roll” is a broad one.

 

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel (2000, dir: Wim Wenders)

Now here is a film entirely in thrall to the rock thang. Directed by Wim Wenders, who was born in 1945 – being born during the Second World War makes you the prime rock demographic – it has a story by Bono, of U2 fame, and is entirely fixated with rock’s regular obsessions: madness, freaks, the Man and the idea that the good guys are in fact really the bad guys. It has an issue with authority. It is in essence an Agatha Christie whodunit with every element bent out of shape, starting with Mel Gibson as a cop investigating a murder at a hotel populated almost entirely by weirdoes. Gibson’s Detective Skinner wears a back and neck brace. Because, we learn, of complications after surgery to remove a third arm growing out of his back. Of course. Skinner is trying to find who killed a billionaire’s son, played by Tim Roth for the few seconds he’s in the film before he tumbles to his death from the hotel roof. Did he jump or was he pushed? Wenders seems more interested in the characters in the hotel than with getting to the end of any process. But then it’s the Wenders way. So we meet Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies) an ADHD narrator tailing Skinner as he makes his enquiries. We meet Peter Stormare as a Beatles obsessive with a weird Liverpudlian accent. And most importantly we meet Milla Jovovich’s Eloise, a bookworm with a heart – she provides a cool if blank centre around which the film revolves. On the carousel are a group of fringe dwellers, the sort of actors we expect in a film like this – Bud Cort, Amanda Plummer, Jimmy Smits, Richard Edson, Julian Sands, Tom Bower. And the occasional one we really don’t – Gloria Stuart, nudging 90 when this was made and fresh from Titanic. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And it did get a fairly comprehensive pasting by the critics when it came out. But I think there is something more going on here than a middle-aged director making a “like, wow, man, the lunatics have, like, taken over the asylum” flick with a middle age rock star’s money. To some extent this is exactly what it seems, an indulgent celebration of the fringe. But rock wasn’t at the cultural fringe when this was made, except in the wild rock-stadium dreams of Bono, perhaps. It was increasingly an old guy’s game. And here we are in LA, the city without a centre, shot carefully by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to show the cracks and the degradation, while Wenders adopts the stance and riffs hard on death, decay, anomie and nothingness. A very odd film, that might well need reappraisal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Shot at the hotel on the roof of which U2 shot the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name”
  • The excellent soundtrack – Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno all contributing
  • Phedon Papamichael’s moody cinematography
  • Mel Gibson in a neck brace, in a film he described as “boring as a dog’s ass” – and he part-financed it

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel  – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Apocalypto

Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in Apocalypto

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 November

 

 

Pizarro captures Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca, 1532

On this day in 1532, a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Pizarro, whose purpose was expressly to conquer the Inca Empire of South America, captured the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa. As Pizarro arrived in the region, Atahualpa had been waging a civil war against his brother Huáscar. Atahualpa’s generals had just defeated him, killed him and his family and seized his capital, Cuzco. Accompanied by 80,000 troops, Atahualpa was en route for Cuzco to survey the spoils of war. He was resting in the city of Cajamarca when he learned that Pizarro was nearby. Pizarro invited Atahualpa to meet. Atahualpa arrived, with 5,000 troops, ready for trouble. The Spaniards attacked and routed Atahualpa’s army, with no loss on their own side whatsoever. Atahualpa was taken prisoner, but bought time for himself by giving the Spanish vast amounts of gold and silver. Meanwhile, the rest of his troops, under general Rumiñahui, were biding their time, and over the following months appeared on several occasions to be readying a counter-attack. This forced the hand of Pizarro, who decided to kill Atahualpa. As a heathen, Atahualpa was due to die at the stake, but this appalled him as it meant his soul wouldn’t go to the afterlife. So he accepted an offer by Friar Vicente de Valverde to convert to Catholicism, becoming Juan Santos Atahualpa and thus eligible for a more Christian death. On the same day he was executed by strangulation with a garrotte. The rule of the Incas was over.

 

 

Apocalypto (2006, dir: Mel Gibson)

Apocalypto ends with a vision of the Spanish arriving in Meso-America, their ships glimpsed by the nameless Mayans who have just been through a sustained barrage of unpleasantness of every sort. It is a wry comic finish to a remarkable film by co-writer/director Mel Gibson, a “just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse” moment of black humour. Or is it? The arrival of the ships can also be read affirmatively as the arrival of the white man and civilisation – a reading made all the more possible by knowledge of Gibson’s headline-grabbing drunken philosophising on racial types. That’s the current problem with films made by or starring Mel Gibson – he’s an unloved and possibly unlovely figure. But let’s not deny him a slap on the back for Apocalypto, a film about a nice young guy called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who appears to be destined to end up as yet another human sacrifice in the ongoing drive by the Maya authorities to shore up their crumbling empire with ritual slaughter. And that’s pretty much the film – the inexorable journey of Jaguar Paw towards a beheading, and his efforts to prevent himself, his pregnant wife and son from decapitation. Gibson was hot off the success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a film in Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin, so making a film in Yucatec, a language not widely spoken outside Central America, had a sort of precedent. As did the portrayal of intense physical degradation, death, torture and suffering which surrounds Jaguar Paw on his way to the top of the stepped pyramid where he too is to die for the greater good. Because it’s in a foreign language, some see Apocalypto as a film making lofty arthouse claims, and judge it harshly as a consequence. But it isn’t; it’s a visceral, intense, brilliantly paced action movie, with some vague nodding to the mysticism of Terrence Malick in its depiction of the lush jungle – nature, primal, ordered, beautiful, and all that. But it’s far more in thrall to the sort of movie-making that Cecil B DeMille went in for, the “cast of thousands”, the spectacle designed to inspire awe, with barely a need for dialogue at all. Proper old-fashioned Hollywood, in other words. If Yul Brynner were still alive, you can bet he’d have been gagging to be in it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A reminder that it was the Spanish, from Christopher Columbus onward, who conquered America
  • Watch it, then read the reviews – grudging aren’t they?
  • Dean Semler’s restless, epic cinematography
  • The underdog drama reduced to its basic killer elements

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Apocalypto – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

What Women Want

Mel Gibson does yoga in What Women Want

 

 

Nick Marshall, a sexy, charming and single Hollywood exec, hey it’s Mel Gibson everybody, suddenly develops the ability to hear what women are thinking. Of course he’s completely freaked, though obviously flattered at some of the “what a great butt” comments – this being the very last time that Gibson’s physique rather than his politics would be attracting attention. To start with Nick exploits his talents as many men would – getting laid, psyching out his female boss (Helen Hunt) and shortcutting his way back into his estranged daughter’s affections. But then something weird happens, which lifts this film right out of the common run. As a result of listening to the hopes and fears of all those sad lonely Bridget Joneses he’s surrounded by, Mel finds himself turning into a warm, empathetic and sensitive human – Men may be from Mars but this one’s behaving very much like he just beamed in from Venus. So what does that make the woman who falls for him? Holy erotic subtext, a crypto-lesbian drama hiding inside a standard screwball romance. You’re not buying it? I’m reading far too much into this standard bit of Hollywood misogyny? Writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa have simply missed the sort of  illogicality Hollywood films are full of? OK. Then watch right to the end of this otherwise straight up and down film and see if you can explain its final line.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

What Women Want – at Amazon