S. Craig Zahler made a splash in 2015 with his horror-western Bone Tomahawk, then he crushed skulls and made Vince Vaughn a badass with his savage and gnarly Brawl In Cell Block 99. Now, for his third feature, Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler dialed back on the violence, the compelling characters, and the fun, and made a 70’s-style cop thriller that misses most of its punches.
We follow Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who are having a bit of a bad day. While arresting a Hispanic guy suspected of dealing drugs to kids, the two are caught on tape using excessive force, in the form of Ridgeman stepping on the man’s neck with his boot – though no one records them harassing a naked Latina suspect and pretending not to understand what she’s saying due to her accent. The fear of the tape going viral forces the chief of police (Don Johnson) to suspend Ridgeman and Lurasetti for six weeks without pay. By now you should know what you’re getting yourself into when watching a Zahler film. His producer Dallas Sonnier has said that they make ‘populist entertainment’ for Trump’s America, so you better be ready for all kinds of discrimination, as well as some really racist protagonists who are portrayed as heroes. The scene of our protagonists abusing their power? Played for laughs. Making fun of a terrified naked woman? Hilarious, it seems. The chief of police even makes the case that being branded a racist today is just like being labeled a communist in the 1950s, and that policemen are the real victims here.
You might be mistaken for believing that Zahler wrote the script with Gibson in mind, as the role of an overt racist, scruffy, too-old-for-this-shit police detective suits Mel Gibson like a glove, even if you spend the whole film waiting for him to go a bit over to the Martin Riggs-side of things. Vaughn does the best with what he has, but while Dragged Across Concrete is heavily influenced by cop thrillers, it never really shows the playful dynamics of buddy-cop films like Lethal Weapon. Those films work because of the banter caused by the different personalities of the main characters, but Gibson and Vaughn play pretty much the same character, one of them is older. It doesn’t help that Zahler writes lots of stakeout scenes despite not having a single character be able to talk like a real person.
As if being suspended wasn’t enough, Ridgeman and Lurasetti have a few problems at home too. Ridgeman’s wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) has MS and his daughter is bullied by black kids on her way home from school, which has Ridgeman worried they may want to rape her once she is older, prompting him to vow he’ll get them out of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Lurasetti is worried his girlfriend will not want to marry him because he won’t be able to provide for her since she makes more money than he does. This makes Ridgeman decide he’s had enough, and he wants the reward he feels he deserves for his service, and they both embark on a quest to find a criminal to steal from, and start a new life (they get the criminal’s name from Udo Kier, one of a few Cell Block 99 alums returning, which also includes Fred Melamed and Jennifer Carpenter).
What follows is an extremely slow burn film with a pulse rate so slow you will want to check if there’s any life left in this film. S. Craig Zahler is known for slow-burns that culminate in explosive third acts, but Dragged Across Concrete its too self-indulgent in its runtime of two hours and 40 minutes that builds up to too little, too late. Zahler starts introducing characters left and right, including a seemingly major character at the 2-hour mark, introduces an emotional background for the character to make us care, only to have that character be brutally murdered a few minutes later.
That being said, when the violence does pop off, it does in remarkably brutal ways. Bodies are ruthlessly mangled, limbs torn apart due to high-caliber gunfire, a few heads explode in little pieces, and a man is graphically disemboweled with his stomach being cut opened to retrieve a swallowed key. If that’s your main reason to see Dragged Across Concrete, you may want to just see Brawl in Cell Block 99 again, since there’s not nearly enough violence to justify the excessive runtime.