DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (2019)
Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White
R | 2h 39min | Action, Crime, Drama | 22 March 2019 (USA)
Synopsis: Once two overzealous cops get suspended from the force, they must delve into the criminal underworld to get their proper compensation.
Review: Rusty Ryan – Novelist-turned-Filmmaker S. Craig Zahler is rapidly developing into a true Creative Force. His unique skill-set is highlighted by his absolute confidence in his ability NOT to present a theatrical release the way we have grown so accustomed to. He is a throw-back to a time when movies depended on large interesting nuggets of character driven dialogue and exposition to progress the story arc. His third film as Writer/Director is a completely engrossing crime caper told by a Master Storyteller. Once it starts, we are willing participants no matter where it goes, or how long it takes.
I was struck by the simplicity of the opening title card: “Dragged Across Concrete”. Typeset in a San-serif upper/lower case font (probably Helvetica). Thin, white lettering dwarfed against a solid black background. This literally a harbinger of what is to come; a story that is bleak, matter-of-fact and to-the-point. And although the title is more of a pulpy mood setting element, that is exactly how everyone involved will feel when this tale is told.
Subsequent scenes are absent of a normal orchestral soundtrack in the background to elicit the necessary mood. There are no multi-layered tracking shots, lens-flairs, computer generated effects, immense explosions or dramatic changes in aspect ratio. But make no mistake, this ride is so enjoyable and engrossing you will not even notice the run time that falls about 15 minutes shy of 3 hours. This slow burn incredibly defies time and feels like it progresses at an amazing pace.
This movie follows his previously established template that contain long sections of banter and exposition occasionally sprinkled with shocking eruptions of brutal violence. But nothing Zahler shows us is throw-away and the time-line is not progressed by verbal trickery. Characters do not have 8 1/2 minute conversations surrounding the tasty nuances of Big Macs vs. Whoppers. That kind of dialogue would fall flat in a Zahler movie. This is just real people, dealing with real problems, and adjusting accordingly minute-by-minute. Yet somehow, we are on the edge of our seat as we watch our leading men spend endless Stakeout hours watching, sleeping and thoroughly enjoying eating an egg salad sandwich.
This story centers around detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), a weathered, chain-smoking cop who is partnered with the much younger Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn). Both are suspended over a police brutality issue when they are caught on video using excessive force while making a drug dealer arrest of a Mexican-American suspect.
Gibson’s character, fast approaching 60, has decided to target and rob an unsuspecting criminal gang leader because of his growing need for cash to help himself and his MS-afflicted wife (Laurie Holden). To make matters worse, his neighborhood is degrading rapidly and he is worried about his daughter’s (Jordan Ashley Olson) safety. Gibson enlists the help of partner Vaughn who has his own demons but reluctantly agrees to participate….until he decides that he doesn’t agree. This is one of the many evolving aspects of this movie. Every moment/changing situation asks our protagonists to continually evaluate, react and respond accordingly. Nothing is guaranteed. To emphasize this, a running joke has Gibson constantly giving the odds of something going according to plan. This only adds to the increasing sense of dread because, of course, as the movie nears its completion, the odds keep going down.
A parallel story this puts the cops on a collision course with ex-cons and gang-bangers Henry (Tory Kittles), and Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Kittles and White have sided-up with some very ruthless masked men that are somehow involved with the criminal leader that Gibson has targeted (the incredible East German actor, Thomas Kretschmann) .
Throughout the unfolding of the story, there are hints and small insights into each character through the nuances of their interactions with each other…some are a lot smarter than then let on. While others go out of their way to make a point of pointing out how clever they are whether it’s actually true or not. After this tale has run it’s course, it’s fun to look back at the mental chess matches that were going on right in front of us and the other characters, that went completely unnoticed.
In terms of performances, Zahler always seems to get top notch performances from his cast. Gibson is great, as usual, and Vaughn can act so effortlessly that it sometimes works against him. It might seem like he is not trying but he is extremely talented. Though he keeps tight control on his face, his eyes always show his inner emotions. I personally believe he belongs in these gritty dramas as opposed to his more comedic roles. And for the record, Vince Vaughn was not the problem with True Detective Season 2. It was the absence of Cary Fukunaga in the director’s chair and sub-par writing. And while the entire ensemble cast completely shines, it’s Tory Kittles that really stands out and steals every scene he is in. This is ultimately his movie.
Besides being the second Zahler movie using actor Vaughn, the cast also includes four other rapidly-becoming Zahler regulars: Don Johnson as a long-ago parter of Gibson who has progressed through the ranks while Gibson’s career stayed stagnant; Uldo Keir, in the briefest of parts, lasting just long enough to add to the general creepiness and to kick up the “this is serious” factor; Jennifer Carpenter, who’s role is both memorable and heartbreaking; and the marvelous character actor Fred Melamed as a Bank Executive. Although limited in screen time, each actor makes an integral contribution to the movie and each adds to our emotional investment.
Zahler is carving out quite a nitch for himself with his gritty Art House style B-movies. And that B-movie reference is not a knock on the quality. It’s more about the overall essence that seeps out of his creations. They have that 70’s gritty, grindhouse feel but without the crackles and pops that show up on aged, snowy 35mm film prints. And like I mentioned before, there is no ordinary soundtrack running in the background of the action. Music is only heard on car radios or home stereos. And those songs consist of new compositions of soulful 70’s-esque songs by Composer Jeff Herriott and Zahler himself. Yes, this multi-talented Renaissance Man is also a musician. Some of the more memorable tunes, like “Shotgun Safari” are performed by the O’Jays. Just to recap, Zahler has actors like Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson reading his lines and musicians like the O’Jays singing his songs. Let that sink in!
With “Dragged Across Concrete” S. Craig Zahler has given us another unique gem. His two previous movies include “Bone Tomahawk” starring Kurt Russell; an incredible genre-bending Western/Horror/Cannibal mash-up and “Brawl In Cell Block 99”; a exploitation infused Prison/Crime drama that marked Zahler’s first collaboration with Vaughn. And although I am much more fond of the lurid content and shock elements of “Bone Tomahawk”, “Dragged Across Concrete” is a more complete and satisfying movie.
As far as I am concerned Zahler cannot make movies fast enough. Until then, I am really going to enjoy every bite of my next egg salad sandwich! It might make the wait pass by faster!