Over the course of his previous two features, S. Craig Zahler has carved a name for himself as a skilled director of deep character-based studies with added gore value. Though not as overtly provocative or aggravating as Quentin Tarantino, Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete similarly submerges the audience in genre filmmaking, whilst resting at a lengthy 160 minutes.
In focusing on two rogue cops, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), Zahler’s film opens up a dialogue around police brutality, alongside what inherently drives self-absorbed masculinity. Comparable to Brawl in Cell Block 99, the director offers an introspective modern gaze at stereotypical thriller characters that do pay dividends in a pulsating final act.
Caught on film using excessive force on a Mexican drug dealer, both Ridgeman and Lurasetti are suspended from the force. Facing six weeks without pay and extensive media coverage on their actions, they are forced to turn towards tracking a drug dealer to gain some extra cash. Yet, both cops are not just in it for their own gain. At home, Ridgeman has a wife whose health is declining and a daughter who is constantly being harassed by a group of youths. For Anthony, he hopes to propose to his girlfriend, offering her a world filled with diamonds.
The fundamental centre of the film’s genre approach is formed in these character studies. In the provocative casting of Gibson, it is an act that comes to blur the lines between the two men’s personas – thus their shared violence. In between drawn-out scenes of the two men sitting in a car eating egg sandwiches, waiting for their target, the narrative is intercut but two other strands.
The former focuses on Henry (Tory Kittles), an ex-convict fresh out of jail who wants to better the lives of his disabled brother. The third narrative of Black Gloves (Primo Allan), with Ridgeman’s bare-knuckle violence, serves as an ultraviolent surprise package that delivers simply shocking moments. When alone, these three strands buckle under the weight of slow character studies. Still, when meshed altogether as the narrative unfolds, the city of Bulwark feels as tangible as the streets outside your window.
Absent of the eccentric qualities that led Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 to be so well-received, Zahler’s latest outing feels a mature step forward. Not without Cronenbergian moments of exploding heads and fingers, the character development of Ridgeman and Lurasetti story is Zahler’s main focus. What does strike you about his director is its mature approach to carefully creating characters who display and feel genuine human emotions, even if they are crooked cops. In one subtly handled scene, a young mother (Jennifer Carpenter) returns to work with awful repercussions at the hands of Black Gloves and his crew. The scene accurately reflects the self-awareness Zahler possesses for creating authentic characters whilst tormenting an audience’s ability for pathos.
Absent of any pulsating score a la Michael Mann, The O’Jays provide a soulful diegetic soundscape for the world. Initially, at the start of the film, one cannot help but ignore the blaxploitation themes present in focusing on Henry’s life whilst groovy melodies fill this world. Deepened in the case of Anthony’s obsession for jazz, the funky tunes of the group are surprisingly their first true collaboration on film. With dedicated performances, these sounds only serve to add a further layer of nuance to this story.
Dragged Across Concrete is a unique take on ultraviolence in an age whether the production of films is becoming increasingly polarising. Imbued with a particular stand out performance by Gibson breathes life into Zahler’s mature approach to genre filmmaking. What is next for the director is unknown but what can be stated is that its vitality is something to be savoured, for better or worse.