Dir: S Craig Zahler. Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter, Michael Jai White, Thomas Kretschmann. 18 cert, 158 mins
“Being branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being branded a communist in the 1950s,” Don Johnson’s suave police sergeant tuts early on in the stakeout thriller Dragged Across Concrete, while Detective Brett Ridgeman, played by Mel Gibson, looks on with forehead furrowed.
“The entertainment industry, formerly known as the news, needs villains,” he goes on, as the camera turns back to Gibson, whose character is a long-serving plainclothes cop recently disgraced on the nightly news by a racist rant captured on cameraphone. There follows a discussion about how valuable careers can be vaporised by moments of madness, and isn’t it all frightfully unfair. This is subtext that lands with a bonk.
But subtlety is rarely on the menu in an S Craig Zahler film, as those familiar with his tough-but-worth-it earlier work – macabre horror-western Bone Tomahawk, nihilistic prison thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99 – will know all too well. Dragged Across Concrete is the former singer and novelist’s longest and most expansive film yet, though it also tones down the extreme sadism and anguish of those earlier projects.
Still, there are more than enough awful goings-on here to rule it out of family film night: heads pop, fingers are shredded by machine gun fire, someone is disemboweled in the back of a Transit van and a missing set of keys are fished out of his entrails.
As a result of the outrage surrounding the video, Gibson’s Ridgeman is suspended without pay, along with his partner Anthony Lurasetti (nicely played by Vaughn, who with this and Fighting With My Family is on a likeable streak). But he still needs money, so when news comes in via an old contact (Udo Kier) of an impending robbery, he decides to stake out the perps-to-be regardless, with a view to making off with the loot rather than returning it. (Insanely, Anthony decides to help him out.)
The rationale is trowelled on thick, with a white-victim mentality that’s obviously supposed to set liberal viewers’ teeth on edge. Brett’s wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) has multiple sclerosis and is unable to work, while his teenage girl is being harassed by young hoodlums in the street – young black hoodlums, the film takes pains to point out. “I never thought I was a racist before living in this area,” Melanie despairs.
But not all African American males are existential threats to young white women! Some are just trying to get by, like Henry (Tory Kittles), a former prisoner who is also trying to support his family by any means. Via his friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White), an opportunity arises to work as a getaway driver on an impending heist – guess which one! – arranged by a tenebrous underworld mogul, Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann).
There are only two dots to join here, and Dragged Across Concrete takes 90 minutes of its more-than-two-and-a-half-hour running time to do so. But as a double-sided procedural, it is morosely gripping, and leans into boredom as a style choice. Inside cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s spare, sickly-hued compositions, there’s lots of chewy dialogue to pass the time, with everyone talking in what might be called comment-section English: dense, circuitous, self-admiring and bad-tempered by default.
Yet even when the heist gets underway, the film takes its time about everything. What Zahler has essentially done is put a 15-minute mid-blockbuster set-piece on the rack and stretched it out until its cartilage pops. The duration is part of the point – you can’t do gnawing fatalism in a hurry – but the repetitions and languors here are overkill in every sense.
Especially gruelling is a mid-film digression featuring Jennifer Carpenter as a new mother returning to work after maternity leave, which is rigged to induce maximum viewer despair. Striking a cynical tone is all well and good, but this is cynicism as craft.
Still, Gibson is an undeniably good fit for it all, with his grey complexion, growling vowels and pumice moustache. This blacklisted actor’s presence feels as taboo as anything else here, and stokes up the sense, as the job collapses into carnage for all concerned, that Dragged Across Concrete is showing you something that shouldn’t be watched.