Dragged Across Concrete is exploitation auteur S. Craig Zahler’s third feature film, and so far stands as his best. I use the terms auteur and exploitation vaguely here because neither can completely encapsulate what the man is doing with his work, the flavour he strives to bring us is so specifically distilled and perfectly see-sawed a recipe that there are really no pins to drop on the cinematic landscape or existing terms for it, and he may have pioneered something new entirely. He blared onto the scene with primal horror western Bone Tomahawk and followed it up with brutal flick Brawl In Cell Block 99, but Concrete is his most deliberate, suspenseful, heavily charismatic, thoughtful and entertaining piece yet.
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are Ridgeman and Lurasetti, two sinewy older detectives prone to excessive force and bitter attitudes, until a particularly violent arrest lands them on a viral video and an unpaid suspension from their captain (Don Johnson in a delicious extended cameo). Feeling slighted by both the department and the civilians they’ve served for decades, they decide to tap into underworld contacts and win back some currency as they both have family problems that unemployment wouldn’t serve well. “We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation” growls Gibson through a muskrat ‘stache and eyes clouded with anger, and it’s easy to see why he’s miffed. The film is under vague fire for showing us two racist asshole antiheroes and while their actions in the opening collar sequence are extreme and not very nice, they’re not as played up, hateful or heinous as I’ve read some whiny reviews claim. These two are hard bitten jerks, but when the anvil comes down and we see the moral core of each laid bare, they are essentially decent guys who won’t stand by when real injustice rears it’s ugly head. It does too, in the form of nasty arch criminal Vogelmann (an icy, evil Thomas Kretschmann) after a tip off from an underworld contact (Udo Kier, all too briefly). They decide to try and score some mob loot just as ex con Johns (Tory Kittles) and his childhood buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White) gang up with Vogelmann to do some criminal shit.
This film has its action scenes and close encounters but what really enthralled me is the patience it takes to show us stakeouts in real time and set up incident on its own clock. The two cops post up in their car, eat snack food, nap, banter and compare world views as they simply wait for their quarry to make his move. This is the kind of character cultivation and pacing that leads to investment in the story, so that when the payoff comes we are riveted. I’ve already spoiled too much because I just saw this and want to gab about it endlessly but it’s essentially a long, measured surveillance game followed by a chase and one knockout of a confrontation scene that’s insanely suspenseful and ducks many expectations we have given what we’ve seen so far. Gibson and Vaughn are just so great here, they eat up the dialogue like fast food served with fine wine, it’s Mel’s best performance in years and he owns it. Zahler has a way of writing that is like protein for the ears, a poetically rich timbre as if every character has several thesaurus’s on hand and uses rich, offbeat dialogue to place you right in the scene. Some will inevitably find it too purple or pretentious a script, but I love the way this guy writes. Further down the cast lineup we get turns from Zahler regulars Jennifer Carpenter and Fred Melamed as well as Laurie Holden, Cardi Wong, Matthew MacCaull and others.
My only one gripe is the ongoing and blatant use of Vancouver as other cities when it’s very clearly not. It’s supposed to be Bulwark here but they’re sat up there in Don Johnson’s office on like the twentieth floor somewhere in Coal Harbour with the whole Burrard Inlet visible and it’s like… get real, it’d be nice to see things filmed where they’re set for personality instead of just lazily using my city, but oh well. Probably not a gripe for most, but having grown up here it takes me out of the story just a bit when everything under the sun is recognizable. This has to be Zahler’s most complete and streamlined creative vision so far, a nasty gutter-ball genre piece that shows life in the inner city boiling over the pot into street violence, heists gone up in flames and good intentions shot to ribbons by high powered artillery. The best film I’ve seen so far this year.