Titles of films are not usually so conscientious in giving you an exact sensory impression of the forthcoming entertainment. This title pretty much lets you have it like the feelaround cinema once envisioned in Brave New World and Kentucky Fried Movie. You’re aware of concrete abrading skin – and maybe the calloused grip grabbing the shirt-collar at the back of your neck or the gun barrel jammed somewhere intimate. Maybe this was originally just a working title, something scribbled down as a temporary placeholder until everyone came to see how appropriate it was.
S Craig Zahler, the director of the bizarre western horror Bone Tomahawk in 2015, has now put together this brutal, nasty, often brilliant Grubby Harry exploitation crime-thriller with flourishes of horror and sadism within its unhurried stakeout tempo and chapter-length scenes, aspiring to the tradition of George Higgins or Ed Bunker. I should point out the critical cognitive dissonance involved in praising anything to do with the disgraced-but-not-overwhelmingly-penitent Mel Gibson. Just as with his directorial effort Apocalypto, I have to pause after each keystroke to give a yelp of resentment.
But for all its ambient nausea and cynicism, I have to admit to having been gripped a lot of the time by Dragged Across Concrete. Gibson plays Brett, a cop pushing 60 in a fictional US anytown resembling Vancouver, stoutly named Bulwark. Brett has career stagnation due to his persistently violent attitude to suspects. His former partner Calvert (Don Johnson) has been promoted way ahead of him – due, we are given to understand, to his greater facility in ass-kissing and political correctness. Now Brett’s partner is Anthony, played by a more-than-usually-engaged Vince Vaughn, and together our two amigos participate in an overzealous drug bust; this results in a work- and income-related disaster causing Brett to suggest to Anthony a certain off-the-record freelance opportunity. Anthony agrees to go along with it, while sorrowingly calling this “a bad idea – like lasagne in a can”.
Meanwhile, in another part of the amoral crime universe, Henry (Tory Kittles) is a young African-American man who has been released from prison and instantly reintroduced to the world of lawbreaking by his friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White). A certain lucrative job is in prospect for them, being run by some very sinister Europeans. And there is another character who is slotted into this ensemble: bank employee and new mother Kelly, an interesting performance from Jennifer Carpenter. A more length-conscious director might have cut her out entirely, in the interests of getting the movie closer down to two hours.
There is a distinct, if spurious parallel between the cases of Henry and Brett. Henry has to look after his disabled younger brother, and Brett is troubled by the fact that his wife, Melanie (Laurie Holden), has multiple sclerosis, and his teen daughter is hassled by young black men in the tough neighbourhood where his low pay condemns them to live. Melanie mutters that she never saw herself as racist before this. As for Anthony, he is going out with Denise (Tattiawna Jones), a smart, beautiful woman of colour whom he senses may be less committed to the relationship than he is.
Clearly, both men are pathetic, with a casual unexamined sexism and numbed arrogance revealed by their behaviour in the initial drug bust. The chaotic mess into which they progressively lower themselves is their destiny and their punishment. Brett has an annoying tic of weighing up the likelihood of danger in percentage terms, without ever grasping that his own doom probability is running at 100%.
Dragged Across Concrete doesn’t drag. This is a long film, but there is something so horribly compelling about its unhurried slouch towards the precipice. Brett and Anthony are stuck together in the car for long periods of time, and Henry and Biscuit are also stuck together in their getaway van, with nothing much to do but dream of snacks. It’s like a road movie whose characters, or combatants, are circling round and round each other as if on some vast ring road before coming together for their grisly contest.
Zahler doesn’t prioritise smart dialogue as such, despite the feel and structure being indebted to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. Henry jeers knowingly at Brett’s bulletproof vest: it makes him look svelte, like a girdle. In fact, of course, it doesn’t do anything of the sort. Everything and everyone looks irreparably grisly.