Fans of writer and director S. Craig Zahler’s work have likely come to expect several common elements: startling hyper-violence, witty and wordy scripts, and breathtakingly exciting finales. While Zahler’s latest, Dragged Across Concrete, maintains most of these key ingredients, it’s missing a crucial one. Zahler’s previous works featured charismatic leads that were both memorable and likeable, if not prone to questionable behavior. These empathetic characters made scenes of impending danger that much more thrilling. Dragged Across Concrete, unfortunately, features almost none of this charm, which results in a messy drama where the rest of Zahler’s otherwise winning elements fall apart completely.
Dragged Across Concrete is a noir tale of desperate men who turn to crime to solve their problems. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn star as Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti, partner cops who get caught on video using excessive force during a bust and land themselves a six week unpaid suspension. Feeling the pressures of a wife with failing health, and a teen daughter who is routinely harassed on the street, Ridgeman turns to crime in hopes of earning his family a better life. Lurasetti, also finding himself in a pinch for money, hoping to propose to his girlfriend, reluctantly gets swept along with Ridgeman’s plan. Tony Kittles plays Henry Johns, an apparent foil to Lurasetti and Ridgeman, who returns from a stint in prison to find his mother turning tricks to fund a drug addiction and care for his disabled teenage brother. Similar to the suspended cops, Johns turns to crime in pursuit of a better life for his brother and mother. The intersection of these three characters is the driving force of the film’s plot.
The problem with the story is that this creates a “both sides” narrative that feels both disingenuous and forced. Dragged Across Concrete seems interested in drawing parallels between men at opposite ends of the social spectrum that find themselves in similar positions of desperation. But when one end is a racist cop and the other an ex-convict minority, the comparison feels dishonest. Gibson’s character reads like the embodiment of “anti-PC” culture, mourning the days before the watchful eye of social media prevented him from brutalizing minorities in order to “get results.” Zahler’s choice to cast Gibson, well known for his history of racist and anti-Semitic remarks, feels designed to provoke viewers. Kittles’ character is easier to empathize with, but is given disproportionately less screen time. There is a story here, about how very different people can find themselves in similar circumstances through desperation, but it plays out weighed heavily through the perspective of a racist, crooked cop.
Regardless of its political implications, Dragged Across Concrete’s characters are simply not as interesting to watch as most of the individuals found in Zahler’s previous films. Gibson’s hard-boiled no-nonsense gruff demeanor is mostly flat and boring. Even Vaughn, whose stellar performance in Brawl in Cell Block 99 was simultaneously intimidating and charming, seems relatively uninspired in Concrete. Concrete features a stacked supporting cast, including small roles played by Don Johnson, Udo Keir, Fred Melamed, and Jennifer Carpenter, most of whom Zahler has employed in his previous films. Their brief cameos are more compelling than Gibson and Vaughn’s performances combined, but unfortunately, they are way too fleeting to compensate.
After establishing its major characters during the first act, Dragged Across Concrete becomes the kind of crime thriller similar to Zahler’s previous works. Without central characters that are worth caring about, however, the thick tension so key to his previous films isn’t present. This is worsened by Concrete’s punishingly long run-time of two hours and forty three minutes. Zahler is no stranger to pacing his movies deliberately. Often his methodical pace gives his characters room to spew snappy dialogue and for tension to percolate. Concrete, however, moves glacially. There is a complete lack of urgency here, as characters lazily reload weapons mid-firefight, or remove their victims’ organs at a leisurely pace. With such a hefty length, this slow pacing makes Concrete mostly a chore to watch.
Dragged Across Concrete is not completely without merit, but these glaring flaws prevent the positives from shining through. Sound design has always been a strength in Zahler’s films and Concrete is no different. Every gunshot, bone breaking, and the crunch of a sandwich is incredibly loud and punchy, lending weight and tactility to the film’s violent visuals. Zahler employs grindhouse levels of gore here: limbs are blown off, heads explode and bones are snapped with almost sickening veracity. The practical effects occasionally dip into the realm of cheesy, but the over-the-top violence lends itself to a tangible sense of danger in every action scene. The soundtrack is likewise great - featuring music largely written by Zahler, and performed by The O’Jays and Butch Tavares - weaving its way into the film diegetically. Though these familiar elements are present, Dragged Across Concrete doesn’t quite add up to the same level of quality as Zahler’s previous work. Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are some of my personal favorites, so that comparison may be unfair. But it’s difficult to avoid, and ultimately leaves Dragged Across Concrete especially disappointing. Unfortunately, flat leads and a brutally slow pace make “Dragged Across Concrete” a better description of the audience’s experience than the content of the film.
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Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.