Mel Gibson's New Cop Movie Wants to Be Shocking for All the Wrong Reasons
Dragged Across Concrete, a cop drama starring Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as a pair of police officers pulling off a dangerous heist, is not playing at a theater near you. Though it features two big-name actors, a familiar genre hook, and debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year, it didn't receive a wide theatrical release; instead, it screened in select cities last month while also premiering on various VOD platforms. Most viewers will likely encounter it on Amazon or iTunes, alongside any number of scuzzy, low-budget action movies that typically go unremarked upon by mainstream publications. And yet, Dragged Across Concrete has generated the type of press coverage, both positive and negative, commonly associated with a more high-profile film.
A good deal of that buzz can be attributed to the casting of Gibson, an actor with a history of domestic violence allegations and using racist language, as Officer Brett Ridgeman, a racist cop accused of using excessive force on the job. Gibson's mere presence is an inevitable conversation-starter and a reason for many to avoid the film. At the same time, a good deal of the controversy can be credited to the movie's writer and director: S. Craig Zahler, the filmmaker behind the hypnotic cannibal-Western Bone Tomahawk and the rough-hewn prison thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99, which also starred Vaughn. Over the last four years, Zahler has earned a reputation as a studious crafter of languidly paced genre experiments with ornate dialogue, brutal violence, and ambiguous politics.
In almost every respect, Dragged Across Concrete finds Zahler doubling-down on the elements that have turned him into a headline-generating, headache-inducing filmmaker. At 159 minutes, it's his longest feature, and while it tones down the blood-and-guts gore effects of his past work, it toys with the rhythms of the police procedural, particularly the talky stake-outs and tense shoot-outs, to rework the crime movie in his slightly surreal, novelistic style. Like Sam Peckinpah or Elmore Leonard, Zahler is fond of shaggy digressions that eventually fold back into the main plot and quiet exchanges that let his characters reveal their inner thoughts in private moments. Unsurprisingly, some of those thoughts can be loathsome.
When we meet the gray-haired, mustachioed Ridgeman (Gibson) and his younger, wise-ass partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn), the two men are setting a trap for a drug-dealer, sending another officer to knock on his apartment door and patiently waiting for him to crawl through a window out onto a fire escape so they can bust him. Ridgeman gets the Latino suspect on the ground and proceeds to hold his boot against the man's face; later, he questions the suspect's girlfriend in her underwear, throwing her under the cold water of a shower and pretending he can't understand her because of her accent. It's despicable behavior, but it's also in line with plenty of unethical cops seen in movies like The French Connection, Dark Blue, or Training Day. Ridgeman's crooked tactics wouldn't be out of place on a gritty cop drama like The Shield.
Zahler deviates more pointedly from the standard cop movie beats in another scene between the two officers and their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson). It's a fairly straightforward setup -- the "hand in your badge and gun" moment -- but the three men take a resigned, weary tone that suggests they're just going through the motions as Calvert explains that the fire escape incident was caught on video and they'll be suspended without pay. The scene is deliberately slow and provocative: Lurasetti makes a racist joke, Ridgeman complains about having to "change with the times," and Calvert, in a moment of somber reflection, suggests that perhaps Ridgeman "threw a lot more cast iron than you needed to" in the video. The performers, drained of affect and charisma, match the uneasy tension of Zahler's visual approach, which favors carefully composed eye-level images and very few camera movements.
After the suspension, the men need a new source of income. That's where the story's third lead character, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), a black ex-convict introduced in the film's opening section, eventually intersects with the two main stars. Freshly released from prison, Johns gets tied up in a bank robbery plan where he'll be the getaway driver alongside his childhood friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White). The heist is the handy-work of a criminal mastermind named Vogelman (Thomas Kretschmann), a one-dimensional villain likely designed to serve as a foil to the more "complicated" major characters. Pushed to the brink, Ridgeman and Lurasetti want to steal from the criminals, the type of scheme you -- again -- will likely recognize from other novels, movies, and TV shows. Inevitably, the perfect plan goes haywire and the bodies pile up.
That's just how things go in Bulwark, the fictional city Zahler sets the narrative in. The decision to situate the events in an imaginary locale, one unencumbered by geographic limitations, regional dialect, or social history, is a revealing one: Zahler wants to draw from the world we live in, particularly by touching on hot-button topics, but he wants to do it on his highly specific, hyper-stylized terms. Fair enough. But many of the hardboiled touchstones that influence Zahler -- the cop sagas of Sidney Lumet, for example -- are tethered to the real world in more explicit ways and have a potent sense of place. Plenty of great works of crime fiction, like Richard Price's Clockers, take place in fictional cities, but, for all the time you spend there, Dragged Across Concrete rarely makes you feel like you're breathing the putrid, smoke-filled Bulwark air.
This makes Zahler's claustrophobic visions of urban life eerily amorphous and sporadically heightened -- easy targets for observant critics. At its best, like during the perplexing bank robbery sequence or the unnerving final standoff, Zahler's thorny relationship to realism as a writer and his keen spatial awareness as a director works in his favor; at its worst, like in a scene where Ridgeman's daughter is bullied by teenagers on her block, it feels artificial and phony. As The Ringer's Adam Nayman pointed out in his review, Ridgeman and his ex-cop wife (Laurie Holden) live in what they describe as a "bad neighborhood," but the "light streams in beatifically through their living-room window, illuminating the size and sprawl of their apartment." In the same vein, Vanity Fair's review by K. Austin Collins zeroed in on the baffling idea that Ridgeman, a character noted for his ferocity and temper, "would wait for his daughter to be attacked five times before doing something about it." Too many details fall apart under close scrutiny or feel jerry-rigged to preemptively deflect criticism.
And there's been a lot of criticism -- I especially enjoyed this thorough evisceration in The New Yorker and this more ambivalent reading on Polygon -- but, perhaps as a byproduct of the pop cultural "flooding" described in a recent Longreads essay, it can feel like the discussion is occurring in a vacuum. How many people are watching this movie? Is it shocking or boring audiences? Does that even matter? Cinestate, the Dallas-based production company that produces Zahler's films, says Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 turned a profit, and I imagine the bigger-budgeted Dragged Across Concrete will likely follow suit. (Apparently, they do brisk DVD and Blu-ray business at Walmart.) Despite a reluctance to over-explain and unpack his personal politics, Zahler has been dutifully promoting the movie, sitting for two different interviews with headlines that label him a maverick who "doesn't care" whether you like him or his movies. At a certain point, it feels less like a principled stand and more like a marketing hook. Similarly, the often gripping, but frustrating, Dragged Across Concrete fails to completely get under your skin because it's content with poking you in the eye.