Back in his prime, before he fell from grace in Hollywood, Mel Gibson used to star as the swaggering cop in the hugely popular Lethal Weapon buddy movies. He is a policeman again but looking an older and altogether more chastened figure in S Craig Zahler’s juddering new thriller, Dragged Across Concrete. This is the kind of hardboiled, violent and cynical genre filmmaking that Robert Aldrich specialised in late in his career. It takes a very dark view of human nature. Gibson plays the ageing police officer in a subdued but charismatic way. His silver moustache makes him look like Burt Reynolds or like an ageing Clark Gable. He expects the worst from humanity and that is generally what he gets. As his partner, Vince Vaughn is equally fatalistic. So is the ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) with whom they are on a collision course.
Director Zahler’s previous two features, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, were both very brutal. Dragged Across Concrete lives up to these predecessors. The title hints at what many spectators may feel has just happened to them by the end of this concussive movie. Matters start slowly but this is the kind of story in which characters spill their guts (quite literally) and threaten in a matter-of-fact way to use baseball bats on their enemies’ skulls to practise home runs.
Zahler roots the story in family. The main protagonists all need money to better the lives of their loved ones. The ex-con has a disabled younger brother to look after. The cop, Brett Ridgeman (Gibson), has a wife who is wasting away with multiple sclerosis. On his police wages, he can only afford to live in a rough, racially mixed part of town and his teenage daughter is continually harassed by the local thugs. Brett’s partner Anthony (Vaughn) is saving up to buy an engagement ring for his white-collar girlfriend. She is far smarter than he is and he frets he may lose her.
Like the cops in James Ellroy novels, Brett and Anthony waver between idealism and corruption. Their thuggery, which gets them suspended for six weeks without pay by the commanding officer (a cameo from Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame) is all the more shocking because it seems to be racially motivated. He tells them it’s not healthy to “scuff concrete” for as long as they have done. They are foot soldiers who’ve been badly affected by all their years of dealing with low-lives and criminals. They don’t appear to realise that if they grind a suspect’s face into a fire escape, in public, a passer-by is bound to film them on a cell phone. Nor do they have the political skills to move up the corporate ladder. They endure more danger but are paid far less well than their desk-bound colleagues.
The storytelling is self-conscious and very stylised. Most of the action unfolds in a make-believe city called Bulwark. The presence of camp B-movie actor Udo Kier in the supporting cast suggests the writer-director’s tongue is partly in his cheek. So do the scenes in which the black criminals put on white-face to hide their identities. For large sections of the film, very little happens. Zahler fills the story with scenes showing the cops in their car together, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence, and sometimes fast asleep as they wait for their targets to make a move. Their repartee is nothing like that between Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon films. Gibson’s character takes a Moneyball-style approach to police work: he is continually trying to work out the “variables” and the percentages. Vaughn’s Anthony is continually questioning why he is there at all.
Dragged Across Concrete has a very long running time (two hours 40 minutes) although its plot isn’t complicated at all. From hostages who need to pee to the inane small talk between getaway drivers, Zahler includes details that you don’t find in most other heist movies. Even the car chases and shootouts are filmed in a slow and deliberate way. For no particular reason other than perhaps the desire to include at least one strong female character, the filmmakers throw in a subplot involving a distracted young mother (brilliantly played by Jennifer Carpenter) who can’t bear to leave her recently born baby to go back to work once her maternity leave is over. She is an intriguing figure but one who seems to have stumbled out of a different movie to the one we are watching.
In spite of its gory, macho violence, this is much more of a character study than it is an action movie. One of its most impressive elements is the way Zahler finds surreal humour and some emotional depth in the middle of the shootouts and bank robberies. He makes us care both about the two grizzled cops and about the equally hardbitten ex-con whose fate becomes entangled with their own. The influences here are easy enough to spot – The Asphalt Jungle, Mike Hammer stories, Sam Fuller’s pulp movies and The Killing among them. This may be an exercise in genre pastiche but it’s a surprisingly engaging and affecting one.