Saturday, March 23, 2019


(US/Canada/UK - 2019)

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Don Johnson, Thomas Kretschmann, Michael Jai White, Jennifer Carpenter, Laurie Holden, Fred Melamed, Udo Kier, Tattiawna Jones, Justine Warrington, Jordyn Ashley Olson, Myles Truitt, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Noel G, Primo Allon, Matthew Maccaull, Richard Newman, Liannet Borrego. (R, 158 mins)

"I'm a month away from my 60th. I'm still the same rank I was at 27. I don't politic and I don't change with the times and it turns out that shit's more important than good honest work." 

With his 2015 cannibal horror/western BONE TOMAHAWK and his 2017 grindhouse B-movie prison face-smasher BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, musician and author-turned-filmmaker S. Craig Zahler established himself as a bold new voice in cult cinema (presumably as a goof, he also scripted 2018's PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH). Can one appropriately follow up a film where Vince Vaughn tears a car to pieces with his bare hands? Well, the gritty and amazingly-titled cop thriller DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is Zahler's most ambitious provocation yet, weaving complex characterizations, multiple storylines, bursts of truly shocking violence and splatter and several startling plot turns into a compelling crime saga that runs a sprawling 158 minutes. Zahler's cache in genre circles hasn't come without controversy, with detractors hurling accusations of racism and branding his films as right-wing fodder for the Trump crowd. Cop, and by association,  vigilante movies, have been labeled fascist fantasies for decades, going back decades to Clint Eastwood in DIRTY HARRY, Gene Hackman in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH. Zahler's characters do and say despicable things I don't see him defending or excusing their actions. Understanding the mindset of a political viewpoint doesn't necessarily mean tacit endorsement or justification. Perhaps it complicates things by showing that these characters have a human side and might be doing very wrong things for what they perceive to be right reasons, but Zahler isn't being overtly political here. It's more likely a sign of the times and the cultural environment where the younger generation of film critics have focused less on writing about the films and more about "hot takes," expressing themselves, airing their own grievances, looking for things to be offended by, and making a huge production out of how woke they are. That's really no way to watch movies, people.

He's obviously aware of the criticisms of his work, and even before watching DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE, one has to marvel at how well Zahler has his trolling game down: how much sheer chutzpah and raw balls does it take to make a movie about corrupt, racist cops in 2019 and cast Mel Gibson in the leading role? Few things piss off woke pop culture publications more than Gibson finding gainful employment, and his presence here can be seen as a test of separating the art from the artist or at least exposing the film's pre-release detractors for doing exactly what they're doing: passive-aggressively rehashing and reviewing Gibson's past transgressions instead of reviewing the movie. Gibson has lost none of his power to command the screen, turning in his best work in years as Detective Brett Ridgeman, a veteran cop in Bulwark, a fictional, good-sized lower-to-middle class city that's seen better days. Partnered with the younger Anthony Lurasetti (Hollywood conservative Vaughn, in his second Zahler film), Ridgeman is hardened, cynical, embittered, and a ticking time bomb. He does his job and refuses to play nice, and while his and Lurasetti's arrest records are exemplary ("Two wings of the penitentiary are filled with our collars...maybe three"), they're suspended for six weeks without pay when someone records Ridgeman using excessive force during an arrest, dragging a suspect (Noel G) out of the window on a fire escape and forcefully pressing his boot down on his head. The cell phone footage makes the local news, and while Ridgeman blames it on a society gone soft (sounding like a Fox News host when he barks "We get suspended because it wasn't done politely...the entertainment industry, formerly known as the news, needs villains" like a talking point), his former partner and current boss Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) uses the opportunity to remind him "There's a reason I'm behind this desk running things and you're still out there on the streets."

Neither Ridgeman nor Lurasetti are in positions to go six weeks without pay. Lurasetti is about to splurge on an engagement ring for his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones), and Ridgeman is feeling pressure from multiple directions. His wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) is a former cop who was forced into early retirement when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and with the reduced income, they had to move to a crummy neighborhood where their teenage daughter Sara (Jordyn Ashley Olson) is regularly menaced by a group of black kids ("I was never a racist until we lived in this neighborhood," Melanie laments). Pissed that he's got over 30 years on the force with nothing to show for it and refusing to take a temporary security gig, Ridgeman calls in a favor from posh clothier and connected criminal Friedrich (Udo Kier), who tells him about a vaguely-defined job being orchestrated by associate Lorentz Vogelman (Thomas Kretschmann). With a reluctant Lurasetti onboard ("This is bad...like lasagna in a can"), the pair stake out Vogelman's apartment building for several days before piecing together some semblance of what he might be up to. Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, just-paroled ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) arrives home to find his junkie mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) working as a prostitute. Forced to grow up early after his closeted gay father abandoned the family ("Pops is a yesterday who ain't worth words") and wanting a better life for his mother and his wheelchair-bound little brother (Myles Truitt), Henry teams up with old buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White), who gets wind of a job offer for a getaway driver.

Despite its gargantuan length, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is never dull and never crosses the line into self-indulgence. Like BONE TOMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, it unfolds like a novel, drawing you in and letting the story and the characters breathe and take form and find their voice at its own leisurely pace. It's a good 100 or more minutes before all the plot lines converge (Jennifer Carpenter also figures in with a small but pivotal role as a nervous first-time mom having severe separation anxiety on her first day back to work after having a baby three months earlier), and Zahler is in no rush to get anywhere. Its twists, turns, and detours recall JACKIE BROWN-era Quentin Tarantino, and while Zahler may lack QT's signature pop culture, "Royale with cheese" pizazz, the novelist in him has a way with words that is uniquely his own and fits perfectly with the bleak, abrasive, nihilistic vision of DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE's world. Zahler stops short of rooting for Ridgeman and Lurasetti, but he manages to humanize them in the antihero cop tradition of DIRTY HARRY's Harry Callahan and THE FRENCH CONNECTION's Popeye Doyle (speaking of Doyle, there's a character who would never fly in woke 2019). DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is an equal opportunity offender, whether Ridgeman and Lurasetti are pretending they can't understand a hearing-impaired female perp speaking clear English (Lurasetti: "Sounds like a dolphin voice") or one of Vogelman's goons needing to cut open a corpse (it's a long story) and being reminded "Careful you don't open the liver...it's the worst smell in the world, especially with a black guy," or the numerous bits of overt homophobia. DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE takes place in an ugly and dangerous world filled with ugly and dangerous people. Though it has its share of humor (watch Gibson's seething slow burn on the stakeout as Ridgeman clocks Lurasetti--it's also a vintage Vaughn moment--at 98 minutes to finish an egg salad sandwich, finally snapping "A single red ant could've eaten it faster"), it's a furious, ferocious, and fearlessly uncompromising gut punch of a film that isn't pretty, doesn't play nice, and isn't easily shaken.

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