S. Craig Zahler falls between ever-widening stools with his brutal new crime drama Dragged Across Concrete, which might have been more representative of the viewing experience had it been called Dragged Slowly Across Concrete.
Recently-released criminal Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) returns home to find his mother hooking to pay for drugs. Meanwhile two cops, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are filmed effecting an arrest with too much “cast iron” – as old friend and boss Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) puts it – and are suspended without pay.
The third thread involves a Ninja-type pair of criminals in goggles and black military gear who are planning with the help of Euro gangster a heist. The threads interweave: Johns signs on with his childhood pal as a getaway driver and Ridgeman, recruiting a reluctant Lurasetti, is tipped off about a big job and hopes to rob the criminals and provide them both with unofficial unemployment benefit. It isn’t going to surprise anyone that the well-laid plans of all participants go bloodily – indeed viscerally – awry.
Zahler first arrived on the scene with his bifurcated and stitched together western gorefest Bone Tomahawk and dungeon-set punch-up Brawl in Cell Block 99, also starring Vince Vaughn (and shown at Venice last year). As with those films, here the same mix of the verbal and the visceral is on display as men on a mission mix it up and the result involves some bodies getting ripped apart. However, despite moments of inspired action, something has gone wrong with the formula – for one thing, that script. Terse hard-boiled dialogue becomes increasingly long-winded as scenes drag out.
Dragged… is supposed to be a slow burn, but it’s more like a soggy smoulder. For some reason, Zahler has decided that all his characters need to declare who they are – Ridgeman’s wife tells him that she is an “ex-cop” and a “former cop” within minutes – and the politics: “I’m not racist but…” is a constant refrain. Calvert complains that being accused of being a “racist these days is like being called a Communist in the 1950s”, as Mel Gibson nods his agreement.
The casting, which looks so good on paper, also doesn’t click. To begin with, Lurasetti is supposed to be the young rookie partner, but Vaughn is knocking on the door of his 50s and – despite the dyed hair – looks it. He’s thinking of popping the question to his fiancée and has an annoying habit of saying “anchovies” instead of “shit”. Likewise Gibson, who should be a good fit for Zahler’s blood-splattered amorality, is lumbered with an annoying character trait of giving percentages for everything (there’s an 80% chance you’ll get bored with it). In order to engender some sympathy his two leads, Zahler gives Johns a wheelchair-bound younger brother and Ridgeman’s wife MS, stopping short of giving them both mothers called Martha. It’s complete ‘bull-anchovies’.
Some things are done well. The heist works mainly because, for once, there’s an edit and the whole last act, with decidedly less talking, follows its own bloody logic denouement-wards. The trademark brutal violence remains effective, and Zahler maintains a pervasive feeling of dread throughout his films, but Dragged Across Concrete shows the limits of taking the game long.
The 75th Venice Film Festival takes place from 29 August-8 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty