S. Craig Zahler continues to cement himself (no pun intended) as one of modern genre cinema’s great directors with his third feature Dragged Across Concrete (2018), a brutal and brooding crime epic clocking in at two hours and forty minutes. This is Zahler’s longest feature to date but the director is not afraid of long running times, with his previous two films Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) both running at over two hours. Some would say these are excessive running times but Zahler’s particular brand of filmmaking favours the slow-burn building of tension, suddenly punctuated by brutal violence.
Dragged Across Concrete is both a crime caper gone disastrously awry and a good old-fashioned piece of mean-spirited exploitation. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti, two cops who find themselves suspended after getting heavy with a Latin-American drug dealer and his girlfriend. In the opening scene, Ridgeman stomps on the man’s neck. They then shower the girl with cold water, interrogate her when she’s almost naked and mock her accent.
But they are caught on camera and both suspended, despite their insistence that their actions ultimately put a big-time drug dealer behind bars and stopped the flow of drugs into the local neighbourhood. Out of work, Ridgeman hatches a plan for them to rob a known criminal and earn some of the money he thinks he’s owed after years of fighting crime with little reward. Ridgeman is the older detective, with problems at home and at work. He hasn’t had a promotion since the age of 27, his wife has MS and he wants to move his family out of their local neighbourhood after his daughter is bullied by a group of African American teenagers. Ridgeman soon gets Lurasetti in on the deal but when they embark on the plan, things go terribly wrong with horrific consequences for almost everyone involved. Besides the two leads, there is a whole parade of characters (some charismatic, some sadistic) messily entangled in Zahler’s epic heist narrative. And while the violence on display here doesn’t quite match the bone-crunching bloodshed of his previous two features there is still plenty that will shock. One tangent is mercilessly cruel.
At the centre of the piece, though, are Ridegeman and Lurasetti, both typical anti-heroes. Zahler imbues these flawed individuals with neat idiosyncrasies, sketching out their personalities with witty and precise dialogue. Character traits include Lurasetti inexplicably saying ‘anchovies’ when under stress and the two cops assessing the risks of all situations as percentage figures, something that becomes a running joke. There is also a lot of time spent presenting their positive relationships outside of work: Ridgeman is a loving family man and Lurasetti is about to propose to his long-term girlfriend.
Zahler is certainly being provocative by casting Gibson and Vaughn (less so) as two cops accused of racism and police brutality. When they are confronted at the police station early on, Lurasetti says: “I’m the least racist person I know. Every Martin Luther King Day I drink a cup of dark roast’’. This is a line that is played for laughs but the rough treatment of the girl at the beginning leaves a bitter taste. Ridgeman also believes the black kids bullying his daughter will end up raping her, although the most menacing thing we see them do is throw some soda over her. A number of outlets have criticised Zahler for the content of his films and his latest is no exception, earning scorn from certain publications due to its sympathetic but flawed anti-heroes. The Daily Beast called the film a ‘vile, racist right-wing fantasy’. Politics is constantly bubbling away at the surface but Zahler generally walks the line of political ambivalence, observing but not commenting. Pre-conceptions are challenged and there are shreds of redemption but, at the end of the day, everyone is out for themselves regardless of any prejudices they might hold. That being said, he clearly opposes much of the identity politics that has entered into recent media and political discourse.
The politics of Dragged Across Concrete are hard to pin down but it is what makes this film work, both as an engrossing crime saga and a work of brilliant exploitation. Look at Dragged Across Concrete, and it’s easy to see poliziotteschi such as Almost Human (1974) and The Big Racket (1976), films that have been criticised for their supposed fascistic tendencies and hailed for their condemnation of vigilantism and organised crime. It is this ambivalence that makes Zahler’s films effortlessly live and breathe classic exploitation without resorting to the snarky, faux B-movie filmmaking that is so commonplace. This is a charge I would also level at Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (written by Zahler) that perfectly captures the spirit of a classic splatter film in ways other reboots have failed to do.
Zahler’s films are much more than pure exploitation though. The writing in Dragged Across Concrete is one of the film’s strengths. At two hours and forty minutes, the film is as long as most superhero blockbusters, but Zahler knows how to pace his films. His dialogue-driven style is suddenly disrupted with shocking violence or moments of genuine hilarity. And the masterful writing seamlessly pulls various strands of narrative together, eking out the tension before plunging a sledgehammer in the spectator’s face. This is Zahler’s most ambitious film to date and it absolutely works. Dragged Across Concrete shows Zahler’s mastery at telling a complex and compelling story that chews you up and spits you out in a mess of blood and broken teeth.