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Dragged Across Concrete - DVD Review

Dragged Across Concrete

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

S CRAIG Zahler is fast developing a reputation for making grimly compelling films. The third offering from the writer-director, after Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, is a gritty cop thriller that aims to provoke and disturb while having plenty to say.

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn star as brutal, world-weary, racist cops who are forced to revert to the wrong side of the law after they are suspended for using rough-house tactics. Somewhat predictably, their bid to get rich quick doesn’t go as planned.

If the premise sounds familiar, then that’s only half the story. Zahler, as he has previously shown, likes to take well worn genres (Westerns, prison dramas) and put a different spin on them.

Here, he dabbles in exploitation cinema, while also tipping his hat to the gritty style of the ’70s… all with a modernist narrative spin. And while there are problems, Dragged Across Concrete impresses far more than it disappoints, while also scarring you along the way.

The film’s very title suggests viewers are in for a punishing journey and Zahler doesn’t disappoint, even though a two and a half hour plus running time may initially sound patience testing. Rather, by taking things deliberately slow, he allows audiences to gain a deeper appreciation of the characters and motivations at play, without ever guiding your sympathies.

If anything, Zahler seems to revel in the moral ambiguity he roots the film in, challenging viewers to confront their own notions of right and wrong, of racism and political correctness. A pivotal scene, early on, finds Gibson’s Brett Ridgeman and Vaughn’s Anthony Lurasetti tied up in a meeting with their chief (Don Johnson) discussing the perils of modern policing in an age where anyone can be filmed.

Are we to assume the film’s sympathies lie with the cops, who have roughed up a coke dealer who sells to kids? Perhaps. Have villains now got too many rights? Maybe. But while certainly providing plenty of food for thought, Zahler continues to press buttons within viewers that might be deemed uncomfortable.

The casting of Gibson, in itself, is something of a provocation. And Vaughn has seldom been backward in coming forward with his views on gun laws. But the arguments Zahler puts forward here are relevant and don’t come with easy answers.

The racism inherent in the characters is also examined cleverly, especially when viewed alongside the parallel story of an ex-con named Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), who finds himself on a collision course with the detectives.

All three men have their reasons for targeting the bank job that could ease their troubles. For Ridgeman, it’s the chance to move out of a shitty neighbourhood in order to buy some safety for his teenage daughter and reassurance for his MS-afflicted wife. For Lurasetti, it’s the opportunity to finance a wedding. And for Johns, it’s the chance to improve the lives of his handicapped son and desperate mother (now working as a prostitute to make ends meet). We can sympathise to a degree. But at what cost comes their happiness?

Throughout, Zahler takes detours into unexpected territory, offering brief but telling insights into the lives of others that are impacted by the violence this job brings – none more so than new mother Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), whose decision to finally return to work has potentially tragic consequences.

He also sets up a set of adversaries who are truly worth fearing – balaclava-wearing gunmen with a penchant for extreme violence who exist to heighten the exploitation element.

It’s here that Dragged Across Concrete sometimes falters, however, proving unnecessarily gory and graphic at times… and often at the expense of female characters. Zahler may well be offering his take on the current progressive climate, yet he also finds himself degrading women and offering up the film’s only really backward attitude. It’s something he needs to address moving forward as a filmmaker, as all three of his films have faltered on this side of things.

Back on the plus side, however, his understanding of genre requirement and expectancy is exceptional. He understands that every good cop thriller is only as good as its central partnership. And in Gibson and Vaughn, he has a masterful double act.

They’re dry as hell but strike up some terrific chemistry. They’re naturally world-weary, wearing their cynicism on their sleeves. But they have an unspoken understanding that’s brilliant to watch, some witty interplay and a keen appreciation for the percentages that could make all the difference to their everyday decision making.

The set pieces, too, are ultra-stylish as well as grittily realistic, seldom shying away from the ugliness of the violence on show. If some of this requires a strong stomach (and can veer towards the director’s exploitation Achilles heel), it’s notable for heightening the sustained feeling of suspense that hangs throughout.

And in Kittles’ ex-con Johns, he also has a final ace in the pack: a wild-card, or variable, who offers up a genuinely fascinating character… and one who – once more – challenges initial perception. Kittles is terrific in a role that consistently surprises.

But therein lies another of the film’s strengths: its ability to wrong-foot narratively, while shining a light onto an American [and global] struggle against preconception. Many of the characters here are symptomatic of current world attitudes and problems… and their subsequent journeys only highlight the hopelessness of the wider picture if more people aren’t moved to change.

Dragged Across Concrete is a film with real guts. It isn’t afraid to be judged and exists to be confrontational, which only heightens its overall staying power once you’ve witnessed [or endured] it.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 2hrs 39mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: August 19, 2019