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Overlong and indulgent but too often skillful to be dismissed outright, “Dragged Across Concrete” feels like an epic act of trolling for liberal audiences.
And I do mean epic: at two hours and 40 minutes, this Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn-starring story of two cops who decide to rob criminals after being suspended for police brutality exceeds any level of patience or tolerance for the poisonous, MAGA-friendly ideas that writer-director S. Craig Zahler (“Bone Tomahawk,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99”) refuses to acknowledge, much less take responsibility for in his film.
Gibson and Vaughn play Brett Ridgeman and Tony Lurasetti, seasoned detectives who break a fleeing suspect’s nose and belittle his half-naked girlfriend during a drug bust. A neighbor captures the injury on video, leading their superior Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) to suspend them, just as Lurasetti is completing payments on an engagement ring for his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones) and Ridgeman’s daughter endures a humiliating assault on her way home from school. Eager to score some quick cash, Ridgeman decides to stake out a local safe house in the hopes that one of its inhabitants will lead to a drug deal he can interrupt, and Lurasetti reluctantly goes along for the ride.
In the meantime, an ex-convict named Henry Johns (Tory Kittles, “Colony”) arrives home from prison to learn that his mother is not only using drugs but has also turned to prostitution to make ends meet for her and his wheelchair-bound little brother Ethan (Myles Truitt, “Kin”). Determined to lift them out of squalor, Henry teams up with a former associate named Biscuit (Michael Jai White) to drive the getaway vehicle for a group of criminals, led by the cutthroat Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), to rob a bank of its gold bullion. But when Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s stakeout leads them inevitably to Vogelmann’s crime, they are forced to reconsider the oath they swore as police to uphold the law, even as they encounter much more dangerous opposition than they ever expected.
Many great works of art have been made about — and by — reprehensible people, but thus far Zahler has largely declined to discuss the ideas within his films and especially the views they espouse, leaving audiences to figure out for themselves if this and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” are conservative screeds or just uncomfortably specific character studies for a certain white male point of view. Given their naturalistic, unhurried rhythms, the director’s films certainly owe a tremendous debt to a stream of consciousness disinterested in editing itself — for duration, much less content.
But “Dragged Across Concrete” unfolds like a hard-working, blue-collar white man’s worst nightmare, and it never bothers to try and be anything else, from the talk-radio culture war talking points Ridgeman and Lurasetti regurgitate during meals or the treatment of the arrival of people of color in their onetime safe spaces as generally oppressive, be they the Mexican-American investigator codifying their brutality offense or the black kids that evidence Ridgeman’s notion that his neighborhood is going straight to hell.
The problem with that point of view is that there’s nothing new about it; even “Dirty Harry,” way back in 1971, had enough self-awareness to make Harry’s flinty relationship with his Latino partner a cheeky affectation. These characters are people who simply have not grown with the times, but the movie pulls a Principal Skinner and suggests that it’s really the world that’s gone wrong, not them. At the same time, Zahler’s filmmaking feels like the cinematic equivalent of “I’m not racist — my black friend says so,” filling in supporting roles with black and Latino actors who are either reduced to stereotypes or just plain mistreated. Sometimes both.
A woman of color plays Lurasetti’s girlfriend, but ironically, theirs is the one relationship that does not get explored in real depth in the film; even Kittles’ Henry Johns, who proves honorable as he outsmarts cop and crook alike, doesn’t feel like a real person but rather a plot device designed to bring all of the film’s elaborately-explored threads together.
At the same time, it’s in those threads where Zahler does some occasionally fascinating, even exceptional work. Taking cues from movies like “Heat” that aspire to explore the interior lives of every character, no matter how insignificant, he allows the film to digress for minutes at a time to explore the masked henchmen acquiring the tools for the heist and, later, a bank teller (Jennifer Carpenter, “Dexter”) returning from maternity leave on the morning of the robbery.
These are more successful because they provide context and humanity for the deadly acts that are about to unfold. The ones that are less effective are the unbroken takes of Ridgeman and Lurasetti bickering during their stakeout, or the even longer shots of various drivers and passengers chugging from one location to the next in what sometimes feels like real time. That Zahler uses only diegetic music — and in particular, supremely terrible music that he himself composed for R&B luminaries The O’Jays to perform — feels like adding insult to injury.
Though much of the dialogue feels like it could have been crafted to comment obliquely on Gibson’s personal travails, Zahler mostly lets him off the hook while coaxing out a suitably unapologetic, grizzled performance from the onetime movie star. As a halfhearted moral compass to Gibson’s righteous certitude, Vaughn tackles the details of his character with enthusiasm and humanity, but even he can’t make lines like “Six people got punctuation” seem believable. Though he’s been working for almost two decades, Kittles feels like the big “discovery” of the film, but again, his purpose in the story feels more impactful than any sort of distinct personality that Zahler gives him.
Zahler’s wry humor as a scenarist and director wrings uncomfortable laughs from some virtually unimaginable scenarios, but given his fire hose-like creativity, it’s hard to know what was deliberate and what was accidental. Which is why ultimately, the director’s growing body of work may well resonate with exploitation fans as much as white nationalists; if you can’t peg down how much of it the filmmaker means, it’s easy to see it as outsider art and overlook the stuff that’s truly offensive. But at a certain point, not clarifying or taking responsibility for any of what’s in your films means you’re responsible for all of it, and Zahler is not unique, creative or talented enough to keep audiences guessing much longer.
“Dragged Across Concrete” is not a terrible movie, but it’s not so good that Zahler shouldn’t get dragged for it.