‘’We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.’’
Just two years after his last feature, director / musician / novelist and cinematographer S. Craig Zahler returns with his third project, Dragged Across Concrete. I didn’t catch on to Zahler with his chilling western debut Bone Tomahawk. Instead, my introduction to Zahler came in the form of the visceral yet emotionally potent Brawl In Cell Block 99. Both cut from the same cloth of resurging blunt exploitation cinema, Zahler’s projects have already gone on to form their own cult followings.
Following on in a similar vein to that of Brawl, we’re on the other side of the prison bars this time. Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (a returning Vince Vaughn) are seemingly your stereotypical ‘’old married couple’’ cop duo. Working the beat is their home away from home. When a drug bust goes awry due to media intervention, Brett and Anthony are suspended from duty without pay in an effort to douse the PR flames by their Chief, in a brief but welcome return from Don Johnson. Both men have responsibilities and aspirations that are now put on the line as a result of their actions.
Brett is caring for his wife that struggles with M.S; Anthony plans on proposing and starting his family life. Brett can’t let sleeping dogs lie. He itches to be on the street at any time, telling his wife he’s just going out to run an errand ( a few hour-long errand albeit). Brett is tipped off about a score going down soon that will be headed by Vogelman (Thomas Kretschmann).
If you know Zahler by now, you know that is the start of doom rearing its head.
There is a wild card in the mix however: Henry (Tory Kittles). Henry has just been released from Prison and is looking to make sure his family doesn’t have to feel the wrath of his actions again. He’s obviously hardened from his criminal tendencies, but he’s warm towards his brother who has dreams of education and career prospects. His mother, however, is keeping a roof over their heads by letting strangers “practice home runs on her skull’’. We’ve seen Zahler deal with multiple arcs before in Tomahawk but Concrete is where it really shines.
From the standpoint of an arc, Concrete isn’t really interested in developing those strands to show changed men. No, Concrete is fascinated with depicting conflicts of interest between both sides of the law. Whatever is left of the law for Brett and Anthony to indulge in.
This isn’t a crime caper that catalyses the procedure of police work to see bullet-riddled set pieces. You’re a part of the long, bloodshot stakeouts. The particular anecdotes about breakfast sandwiches and the quality of bread provided by the local bakery. It’s zero glamour and all about the clock ticking.
Zahler’s writing is always best when he’s pulling from his past experiences and using his novelistic presence to dress his environments and scenarios. His prose at top form is calculated to the decimal point. The sleaziest of characters could instantly become the smartest person in the room. Throughout Concrete is seems that the dialogue is self-obsessed with this style and leads to courses of dialogue that often feel out of rhythmic place.
Leaning into this proactive nature, in tandem with an odd pace that doesn’t allow the kickstart to be as investing as intended. When Zahler does plant his feet in the right place and brings his reinvention of ‘’job gone wrong’’ to a new height, Concrete is a damning and sweat-soaked tension piece till the credits roll. The direct and wince-inducing violence that we have come to expect now does arrive but not in the same volume as Brawl. Timing is of the essence more so here than before.
Brutal is an understatement when it comes to the outbursts of innate, raw violence that decorates the looming dread. The finale that brings our players to a head in a minimalist environment is a superlative addition to the heist genre. I can’t divulge the particulars for respect of spoilers but Zahler is undeniably in his element here. He brings his lynchian camera setups and atmosphere (that is evident tangibly in the actual heist sequence) to a satisfying close.
Under all that violence and style, so far there has been a transmissible sense of emotion between Tomahawk and Brawl. Especially in the case of Brawl where Vaughan’s towering bruiser is soaking his hands in blood out of intrinsic survival for the bigger picture: family. Zahler uses that family dynamic to disturbingly reinforce the weapon of consequence through Jennifer Carpenter as the stakes increase come the second act.
Brett and Anthony’s dynamic is likeable, despite their problematic gaze on race and the inhabitants of their world. Anthony is the nominated emotional anchor, which is carried by Vaughn’s succinct and vulnerable performance. Gibson still has that edge of dry humour and cool that dripped off him from the Lethal Weapon days. Brett might be telling himself and anyone that will listen that this Robin Hood effort is all for a greater cause, but it feels more like he can’t help but get his hands dirty.
Brett is more a vessel than a human entity. Henry and his childhood friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) are oddly charming as they talk of a simpler time, as a method to remain calm under the stress of the heist. It’s genuine and feels like a bittersweet shot that you have to swallow amongst that inevitable disquietude Zahler pours over the frame.
After the bones are broken and the scores are settled, Dragged Across Concrete at the height of its power is an experience in every sense of the word. Zahler has already proven to be an essential voice in the modern wave of exploitation cinema. His genre-hopping projects and style, despite their flaws, are nonetheless passionate while scarring. While Concrete isn’t quite as lean as it’s predecessor, the ambitious scale of crime epic is another exciting chapter to witness.
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Mel Gibson, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Michael Jai White