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.
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.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021