Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a cop. He’s been on the force for a while, long enough to see an old partner (Don Johnson) get a fancy desk job and help get a new partner, Anthony (Vince Vaughn), busted for excessive force. The two of them were filmed interrogating a suspect — if you’d call placing your boot on the neck of a handcuffed man on his fire escape in broad daylight “interrogating.” The brass is not happy. Both men are temporarily suspended without pay. Brett is told that he’s losing his sense of compassion, that he’s turning into “a human steamroller covered in spikes and fueled by bile.” Brett does not care. He has a wife (Laurie Holden) with medical issues and a daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olson) being harassed by neighborhood thugs. He doesn’t need a lecture on morality. He needs money. And he thinks he knows who he can shake down to get it.
Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has just got out of the joint. He’s been gone for a stretch, long enough to return home to catch his mom selling her body to make ends meet while his little brother sits alone, playing video games. No worries, though, because with a little help from an old partner in crime named Biscuit (Michael Jai White), he’s about to get back in the game. There’s a job going down. It will pay well, or at least well enough. And he wants in.
Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) is a high-end crook. He’s standing in a nondescript room in an unfurnished apartment. A burner phone rings. The thing that this guy is in town for? It’s on. Preparations need to be made. Vehicles need to be procured. And those two masked men dressed head-to-toe in black, the ones with goggles and machine guns and a penchant for random, inexplicable violence? They need to be filled in on the plan as well.
What do these three groups have in common? A more pertinent question: What is likely to bring all of these disparate folks together, and how much gunfire and bloodshed will be involved? It’s a while before Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s bruising throwback of a crime drama, lets you in on what their collective date with destiny is. Then again, it’s a while before this movie gives viewers the scoop on a lot of things; clocking in at 159 minutes and content to let scenes play out leisurely (all the better to let you marinate in the banter and hardboiledness of it all), it’s the sort of movie that luxuriates in taking its time to get where it’s going. Does that occasionally puncture the sense of shark-like forward momentum that this film needs to keep things from feeling a little slack? Yes. Do you get something richer in return for the detours and drawn-out exchanges and long patches where nothing much seems to be happening? Also yes.
Like Zahler’s previous proud-to-be-a-B movies, the horror-western Bone Tomahawk (2015) and the gloriously gory, batshit prison parable Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), this rough, occasionally toxic gem of a tough-guy flick starts from a pulp base and builds from there. Unlike those movies, however, it distinguishes itself by taking a less weird, more straight-no-chaser approach. It’s tempting to compare this coldhearted crime story, with its older movie stars and biting dialogue and mix of sudden violence and slow character-based speechifying, to Quentin Tarantino’s work (minus the overwhelmingly frenzied, film-fetish touches). But what Zahler seems to be going for is an attempt to make the kind of grindhouse programming that would have inspired Tarantino way back when, i.e. lean, mean ’70s thrillers like The Outfit and The Seven-Ups and Charley Varrick. “Lean” might be a questionable descriptive, but “mean” isn’t. It’s an unforgiving, flint-hard world of nice leather coats and bad people.
Better yet, the writer-director is trying to make the real cinematic equivalent of something you pulled off a shelf of Black Lizard paperbacks and spent time perusing. There are scenes in Dragged Across Concrete that would be the first things to go in most films, narrative tangents and wordy conversations in offices, apartments, lounges, diners, dens, parked cars, bank lobbies (no recent movie has used innocuous interiors better). But they’re the bits you usually remember best in crime novels, and that’s what Zahler is going for; you would almost think that George V. Higgins rose from the grave and penned the script himself. Or Charles Willeford, or Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake, or … the list goes on. It’s a pure, uncut pulp high. Even the rapport between Gibson and Vaughn’s weary cops, which takes on a sort of burnt-to-a-crisp buddy comedy zing, feels like it’s been lifted from the yellowed pages of a vintage potboiler. After Vaughn loudly, painstakingly finishes an egg-and-cheese roll during a stakeout, his partner fixes him with a clockstopping stare. “A single red ant could have eaten it faster,” Gibson says, deadpan.
Right, the Mel Factor. Having returned from the culturally canceled dead, the 63-year-old actor brings a perfect note of bone-deep exhaustion to the role, as well as a palpable sense that rage and contempt are familiar emotions to this man. It’s a hell of a performance — which won’t make a lick of difference to anyone who doesn’t want to watch him onscreen in the first place. You can’t blame them. The fact that he and Vaughn, also doing solid work here, liberally say racist shit to suspects isn’t likely to make folks comfortable with his slow crawl of a comeback, either. Yes, it’s completely in character for them to talk this way, in the same manner that the casual sadism of the professional crooks mirrors a certain mindset as well. Any regular reader of crime fiction knows that salty language and a street-level (or skid row) view of, say, race relations or gender politics are often part of the deal.
It doesn’t make it easier, however, to quell the feeling that you’re not quite sure where the bad behavior of the “heroes” ends and a potentially reactionary strain of thought emanating from outside the narrative begins. Call it “the Dirty Harry syndrome” — what’s merely a pulp pleasure here and what’s actually a profoundly disturbing, near-Neanderthal notion being put forth? And is the introduction of a new character late in the game, one that the film gives you time to get to know and then subjects to intense brutality, a pomo way of making you feel the impact of violence or merely more sniggering cruelty? Ditto a female hostage who suffers various rounds of humiliation. Dragged Across Concrete is apt to send crime-film fanatics, especially ones who prefer their pulp nasty, brutish and incredibly long, into frothing fits of glee. For other folks, the title will double as an apt description of the experience you get in watching it. Mileage is going to vary. You may, like us, thoroughly enjoy it and then have to make peace with the fact that you might go to hell for digging it as much as you do. You will likely feel conflicted about this movie. You should still catch it as soon as possible.