There is a sequence near the beginning of Dragged Across Concrete where ageing NYPD detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his younger partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are called into the office of their chief – and Brett’s former partner – Lt Calvert (Don Johnson) to be reprimanded for their conduct on a case. We have already seen Brett and Anthony in action – quick-witted and well-teamed, they know how to read a room, and they get results fast. They are also rather ‘old school’ – casual in their racist jibes and free with their brutality. So these two dinosaurs seem out of place in Calvert’s modern office, even as they are confronted with video evidence of violent behaviour that they, unlike the progressive world around them, do not recognise as in any way wrong.
This perspectival contradiction is crucial to the dynamic of the third feature from writer director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, 2015; Brawl In Cell Block 99, 2017). For here the main characters – the ‘heroes’ – are neither simply good nor simply bad, but exist at a complicated crossroads. That Brett, incorruptible so far in his long career and with an extraordinary arrest record but still deeply flawed, is played by Gibson – who has famously had his own worst side exposed, and his career damaged, by published video footage – only adds to the confusion in our ethical response to his character. We may, for this film’s considerable duration, be riding with Brett, but that does not mean that we need feel comfortable with it all the way. Anthony himself wavers over how far he is willing to follow his partner, and lays down as a condition for coming along certain moral boundaries that will nonetheless in the end be breached.
The scene in Calvert’s office is, or at least ought to be, stock. After all, countless cop films (including Gibson’s own Lethal Weapon franchise) have featured a scene where a maverick is chewed out by a raging boss. Yet Zahler plays this differently. There is no angry gesticulation, no shouting, no sassy recalcitrance – just three men who all know the score, and who talk calmly, and obliquely, around the situation, in dialogue so stylised as to be almost Shakespearean. This is Dragged Across Concrete in a nutshell. For Zahler always looks back lovingly to a whole history of motifs and clichés – the stake out, the stick-up, the bank job, tailing a vehicle, wisecracking cameraderie, the shoot out, etc. – from cops-and-robbers films past and builds up his narrative from the nuts and bolts of other movies, in much the same way that he draws from the same ensemble of actors that he used in his previous Brawl in Cell Block 99 (not just Vaughn and Johnson, but also Jennifer Carpenter, Fred Melamed and Udo Kier). Yet Zahler also always finds ways to make these overfamiliar scenes feel fresh, by never quite going where you expect. Even the epic 159-minute duration, and DP Benji Bakshi’s tendency to shoot wide and from a distance, serve to defamiliarise these genre materials by expanding their scale.
The surprises come early. For a start, although Gibson and Vaughn receive top billing, the film opens with a different actor and character entirely, from the other side of the law. Fresh out of prison, African-American Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is determined to put all his troubled yesterdays behind him and to ‘fast forward’ to a better tomorrow with his younger, wheelchair-bound brother Ethan (Myles Truitt) and their junkie mother (who has been turning tricks in Henry’s absence). For now, Henry is still ‘acclimating’ to life outside, but pretty soon he is going to join his old school friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) in some kind of criminal enterprise to lift his family out of their rut.
Though different from Henry in colour and background, Brett and Anthony are also looking to cash in on their hopes for a better future. Brett longs to get his MS-afflicted, ex-cop wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) and their teenaged daughter Sara out of a violent neighbourhood in Manhattan – and Anthony hopes to persuade his smart, upmarket girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones) to marry him. Approaching 60 and faced with humiliation, poverty and few prospects after being suspended without pay, Brett realises that his days are becoming numbered – so he decides to call in a favour from Friedrich (Udo Kier), and to build a nest egg for Melanie and Sara by robbing some robbers, with Anthony riding shotgun. Meanwhile a crew of extremely ruthless, well-armed thieves, led by Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), prepares for a big heist – and at the same time Kelly Summer (Jennifer Carpenter) is reluctantly going back to her job at a bank in New York’s Financial District now that her maternity leave has expired. Lines are about to be crossed.
Zahler takes his time putting all these pieces in place, and carefully establishing players who want nothing more than the rewards that they feel they are owed. Once everyone is brought explosively together, the ensuing crossfire is a messy dialectic of class, race, greed, honour, the police code and the law of the jungle, with the ideals and aspirations of the American dream itself hostages to corruption and criminality. “Like cellphones, and just as annoying, politics are everywhere,” Calvert tells Brett in his office – and in Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler converts those politics into a sprawling, gritty action noir, gorgeously lit and morally challenging, where, as always, it is survival of whoever, beneath their mask, happens to be the fittest (and the smartest).
Strap: S. Craig Zahler’s sprawling cops-and-robbers action noir brings plenty of political and moral shade to the law of the jungle.
© Anton Bitel