It can be a tricky thing to make a film violent. Is it going to be fun violence? You watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and oh my god that guy was chopped up by plane propellers! But it’s okay because 1. He’s a Nazi, 2. We don’t see it, and 3. Indy doesn’t go oh my god, that guy’s dead. He just moves on. Even when we see plenty in something like Kill Bill, and it’s all okay because it’s a kick-ass ninja-fest. Raiders and Bill share an easy-going tempo where we aren’t given time to wallow in the agony of the injured or dying. Then there’s the other side of the tracks. Dragged Across Concrete falls on that side. Sort of.
Dragged Across Concrete
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Release date: March 22, 2019
When Detectives Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) are caught up in a relatively-minor police brutality scandal they’re put on suspension and left out in the cold. Ridgeman has a sick wife (Laurie Holden) to support, and his daughter is increasingly berated and attacked by young punks roaming their low-income neighborhood. Putting his ear to the wire of the underworld, Ridgeman is turned on to band of thieves preparing some sort of job, presumably a drug deal. Lurasetti needing money for the family he hopes to start, and a loyal partner to Brett, saddles up as the two look to run a scam on the crooks.
This can only end poorly.
But that really kicks into gear maybe an hour or so into the film. It takes an hour to get to the plot? It does and hopefully you love that first hour as much as I did.
S. Craig Zahler (carving out a bloody name for himself with horror western Bone Tomahawk and brutal prison film Brawl in Cell Block 99) directs our attention to seemingly disparate characters throughout Concrete’s seemingly-excessive two-hour and thirty-nine minute runtime. We open not even on the detectives, but fresh-out-of-jail Henry (Tory Kittles), who returns home to find his mother prostituting herself while his younger brother plays video games in the room next door. Like Ridgeman, Henry needs the dough.
Though I don’t think Dragged Across Concrete aims to be a “message movie,” there’s certainly an effort to address the issue of racial profiling and the highwire relationship between minorities and the police. One of the most interesting lines for me was from Ridgeman’s wife, an ex-cop herself, commenting on her daughter’s recent attack; “You know, I never thought I was a racist before living in this neighborhood…” Watching good people turn ugly, while not becoming a cartoon or caricature, is something Zahler’s script does incredibly well here. The film makes no excuses, but tries to give its audience perspective.
Zahler commits to his scenes, with interactions playing out in real-time, though not always in an effort to build tension. Concrete becomes as hard-boiled as they come, without slipping into parody, but it won’t hammer you with creeping music or anything so obvious. And yet if a scene of Ridgeman at home with his family feels extraneous, just keep that tucked away for later. Enjoy it while it lasts, because once Dragged Across Concrete kicks it into gear, it’s a slugfest. Really what Zahler’s pacing early on does is set you up for the last eighty or so minutes of violence and mayhem, all of which plays out logically (or illogically), the consequences of every action made manifest for us to see. Dragged Across Concrete is incredibly well-edited despite being so long, and is really a marvel for that reason alone.
Is it enough to praise a long film for not feeling excessive? Probably not. Good thing Concrete brings the goods elsewhere.
All the acting is reserved and avoids cliche, Zahler’s script punchy and full of flourishes, but not distracting. These are smart people, doing dangerous things. They’re articulate, they have families and ties to the world, and are only succumbing to lives of crime because it seems like the only option. You could fall on the opposite side of things here, and consider Concrete’s dialogue too self-aware, or relaxed under the extreme circumstances. For me it played as refreshing to have well-spoken characters not yelling and shouting their way through shootouts and sour deals; characters you can sort of admire for their experience and perseverance, and sympathize with their wrongdoings. Yet for our roster of protagonists and tragic figures, there are indeed some very bad hombres afoot.
Anyone familiar with Zahler’s two previous films will likely know what they’re signing up for with Dragged Across Concrete in terms of violence, and while we don’t quite get to the levels of stomach-churning viscera as those films, there are glimpses of casual ultraviolence that are becoming Zahler’s trademark, and this might be one of the film’s few drawbacks.
The presence of such extreme violence can, at moments, feel a bit too casual. Zahler’s work can be viewed through the lens of deconstructing ‘70s and ‘80s genre-fare and repurposing those tropes in a detached, analytic style. Dragged Across Concrete is sort of like watching a Charles Bronson movie with a commentary running, where a narrator might mention “… and the crooks got that van from this guy, and they paid for it with this money…” Cause-and-effect is the name of the game, and whereas ultraviolence worked in Cell Block 99, it being the focus of the film, the bursts of gore here can be almost a bit distracting. A minor issue, as really there’s only one particular scene that bothered me.
So where are we at with Dragged Across Concrete? It’s not “lean,” as I’ve said. It’s definitely “mean,” but even then for all the tragedy I never felt oppressed the way Bone Tomahawk or Cell Block 99 sought to make me cringe. What Dragged Across Concrete is, is a study in cinematic morality (or immorality) and what happens when Dirty Harry is made to fill out the paperwork, so to speak. There’s all the violence and thrill of this kind of crime film present, but we see why it happens, and who is really affected. We see the hints of our own urban decay through the tired eyes of underpaid cops and the desperate acts of struggling minorities. We see crime punished and rewarded, and innocents affected. And we see Vince Vaughn chew on a sandwich while on a stakeout for a good couple of minutes.