Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cellblock 99 are two examples of why writer/director S. Craig Zahler may be the Tarantino of the 2010’s. Not only are these films good enough to earn that comparison, but they are also long, gory and filled with quotable lines. His films harken back to old genres like the Hollywood Western or Exploitation, but his newest outing is a genre that is far more modern, the Crime Thriller, yet is just as much like his previous films. The execution is a step backwards, despite still containing a lot of strengths.
Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are two police officers that are caught on camera forcefully detaining a Mexican drug dealer, being suspended subsequently to deal with the fallout. Left without a way to provide for their families, they decide to try and find a way to gain money illegally. Meanwhile, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has just gotten out of prison and must take part in a bank robbery to also provide for his mother and younger brother.
The pairing of the republican Gibson and Vaughn, as well as the hook of the premise might suggest an outright mean-spirited right-wing fantasy, but the film just wants to be a thriller with a topical hook. The hook itself is essentially a #NotAllCops stance on racist police brutality. That stance is inherently uncomfortable, but this element is dialled to 100 when the dialogue throws in commentary on how the world has become more politically correct. Though not a major aspect, the mere placement of it feels unnecessary, misguided and just plain awkward. There is a mix of moments that back up these topics and moments that try to subvert them, with the end result ultimately being somewhere in the middle ground between “problematic statement” and “intentional subversion”.
Zahler’s character writing is in some respects better than ever, as almost every character feels well defined and developed, despite some only being onscreen for a minute. Though the lead characters are morally objectionable, the script fleshes them out enough to where you can understand why they act the way they do. The plot on its own is workable and well-written, mostly taking a backseat to the numerous quiet and stagnant scenes that get across just how boring being a criminal is. On an atmosphere and story level, the film succeeds.
But the plotting and dialogue is an issue. Despite having multiple storylines, the actual plot could have been 120 minutes. Instead, Zahler extends it to 159 minutes. Several sequences focus on characters sitting in cars and driving to locations, there’s a 15-minute dedication to a tertiary character and though the climax contains some thrilling action, it goes on for an eternity. Whilst a lot of the dialogue is fantastic, engaging and often darkly funny, on occasion it feels forced and wears out its welcome. The sardonic tone of Brett and Anthony’s back-and-forth’s becomes repetitive after a while, especially when some running gags are incorporated. Anthony saying “Anchovies” once was funny, him saying it 5 more times isn’t.
As for the acting, both Vaughn and Gibson convince as partners who don’t know each other that well but work together properly. Vaughn has made a massive leap forward in his acting and he is at his most natural and engaging. Gibson’s performance is decent, despite this being an easy role that does not require much emotion or charisma. Tory Kittles also gives a good performance and benefits from playing a much more likeable character than either Gibson or Vaughn.
The cinematography is static and grimy, yet this is easily the best-looking film that Zahler has made. The shootouts are well handled, being gritty and tension filled, and the lack of music helps get across a perfect sense of realism. But the editing contributes to the overlong storytelling, as it sometimes feels like Zahler is getting lazy and refuses to cut out and cut down scenes that have filler material. His “leave it all in” approach to filmmaking has often been unique and effective, but here it starts to lose it’s power.
Dragged Across Concrete is Zahler’s most mixed film to date. It has several strong points but also a lot holding it back from being an outright success. I think that he needs to reign himself next time and maybe do a film that is much more streamlined, as well as being more aware of the risks of taking a potentially problematic viewpoint on a harshly debated subject.