AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 159 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti are a pair of police officers working the urban beat in the city of Bulwark. The considerably older Ridgeman has a wife, Melanie, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and therefore can’t work, plus a daughter, Sara, who is being bullied by other local youths. Lurasetti’s life isn’t quite as hard, but he’s struggling with proposing to his fiancee Kelly. When Ridgeman being rough with a Mexican suspect is caught on camera, the two are suspended for six months. With his financial situation about to get even worse, Ridgeman suggests that they use the criminal connections they’ve developed through their time in law enforcement to take money off crooks. What can go wrong?
What with the number of screeners we get these days at HCF, plus me having an seemingly increasingly busy life to juggle alongside watching as many movies as possible, I don’t get the time to review lots of cinema releases and Blu-ray buys like I used to. But I just had to make time to do a write-up of Dragged Across Concrete, which I had a real good feeling about when it was in cinemas but which I just didn’t have time to travel out of town to see, it being a perfect example of the kind of entertainment aimed at adults that is being increasingly squeezed out due to the big guns having more and more dominance, and [very sad this but all the evidence points to it being true] audiences changing what they want to go and spend their hard earned cash on. But the Blu-ray was worth every penny for this is a film that for me definitely makes this year’s top ten – though, quite frankly, it hasn’t been a particularly great year for cinema. Lots of good stuff yes, but not that much that’s outstanding and which will be remembered and talked about in years to come. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler impressed immensely with his horror western Bone Tomahawk, though for some reason I have yet to see his follow-up work Brawl In Cell Block 99, something I’m now going to rectify, because Dragged Across Concrete is a terrific crime thriller that captures the fatalism of classic film noir [a great love of mine] better than any other movie I’ve seen in a very long time.
So lets get the obvious out of the way first: yes, it’s bleeding long, especially for a story which is hardly complex. I’m sure that the 159 minute running time has put a lot of potential viewers off, some of whom may have also wondered why Bone Tomahawk why so long to get going even if they ended up really enjoying it. Zahler similarly takes his time setting up things here, and in a way reveals himself as far more of a successor to Quentin Tarantino [whose Reservoir Dogs is clearly an influence on the second half of this film] then some other filmmakers who mimic his style. Despite his reputation for bloody violence, Tarantino is really never happier than when his characters are just talking and we’re just hanging out with them. Even though his style of dialogue is quite different, Zahler is quite similar. I would say that over half of Dragged Across Concrete consists of its two main protagonists chatting to each other in a car while they’re either driving along or involved in a stakeout. This might sound like a recipe for boredom, but instead it’s riveting because we have Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn [reuniting after Hacksaw Ridge] at the very top of their game playing fully rounded and believable characters who are doing things that continually ask the viewer to try to decide what is or isn’t morally wrong. They certainly have something of the ass-hole about them, especially Gibson’s Brett Ridgeman whose reactionary views will seem outdated to some viewers. Me, I felt like cheering when after just a few minutes I realised that I was being presented with a character who didn’t correspond to those suffocating modern Hollywood PC mores [I watched Dirty Harry for the umpteenth time the other day and realised that it’s a film that would never get made now] , yet who was still someone who had his likable and noble qualities. The latter of course isn’t the same as celebrating someone who may have a touch of the racist about him, something which seems to come mostly from years of toiling on his difficult job and where he lives [yes, this film is brave enough to show black kids bullying a white one, it sounds ridiculous but you probably wouldn’t this get in a Hollywood-produced movie now]. Of course you have to chuckle slightly at Mad Mel, somebody who’s said some unpleasant things, playing such a person!
Zahler does a few unusual things with character introduction and usage, but these all seem to make sense by the end. The first 15 minutes or so don’t involve Ridgeman and Lurasetti at all but instead introduce Henry Johns, a young African-American guy who’s just come out of prison to find that his mother Jennifer is hooking and shooting up, even when his disabled, much-younger brother Ethan is around. He joins up with his childhood friend Biscuit for a mysterious but lucrative job, and already we know that he’s going to function as a kind of counterpoint to Ridgeman and Lurasetti. We first encounter those two on a pretty routine job, using somebody else to knock at a door claiming he needs to check leaky pipes while they can then grab the drug dealer trying to escape out of a window. Ridgeman uses his foot to jam the man’s face into a fire escape while questioning him, then both of them pour cold water on and mock the suspect’s partially-deaf, naked girlfriend to get the whereabouts of a case of money. The former act is caught on video, and the two men are understandably suspended, though those of us not enamoured with the religion of PC will be behind Rigdeman’s frustration at the way politics and the obsession with race seem to get in the way of him doing his job – and yes he gets results, though he’s been doing the same thing for 27 years with no promotion. He’s not at a good stage in his life. One can perhaps less understand why the seemingly far more balanced and secure Lurasetti would want to basically become a criminal, but something Vaughn [not normally an actor I find interesting, even in his lighter roles where he can come across as a bit too smug for me] does very well in this film is subtly suggest a person who needs to do something like this, something dangerous [even more dangerous than his job], something on the edge.
So soon our couple are, as Ridgeman puts it; “Monitoring a suspicious individual and trying to figure out if he’s got any money he doesn’t need”. There’s a great deal of observing and following, and if you’re desperate for some action you’ll certainly have to wait a long time, but you do get lots of fine writing and acting to enjoy, with many of the exchanges revealing character elements without it seeming forced, and the calm suspense very gradually building. You could certainly take out 30 minutes of yap-filled footage and you wouldn’t lose any of the plot, but I think you’d lose some richness, and the film would then seem to jump in places. I’m glad it’s the length that it is, though of course such a running time doesn’t suit every movie. I barely felt the running time as Ridgeman and Lurasetti little by little got more out of the their depth as they’re drawn into the doings of a certain Lorentz Vogelmann who has no bones about blowing people away or, in the most film’s most gruesome scene which is a more graphic version of one in Opera, ordering a subordinate to hack open someone’s stomach and fiddle about with organs in attempting to find a key that this person has swallowed in his last few seconds. And of course we often rejoin Johns and Biscuit, look out and driver respectively, and not happy at being involved with a group that carries out death and brutality. When things eventually do really heat up, Johns rather amusingly becomes the observer, it actually being more sensible to let everyone else argue and shoot amongst each other. The story does take a couple of surprising turns, and by now you’ve probably sussed that anybody can die, but Zahler opts to end things on a surprisingly positive, upbeat note which I’m not really decided on. I’m not sure that it suited the tone and approach of the rest of the film, but then much of it is rather bleak, so I can certainly understand why he went down the route that he did with the finale.
Odd and sometimes jarring things are done throughout, such as making a big deal of suddenly introducing a new character nearly half way, but then killing this person off soon after, but this seems to have been done so we begin to view Ridgeman and Lurasetti in a far more negative light. We’re continually asked as to whether taking stuff off criminals that’s ill-gotten is justifiable, but Ridgeman and Lurasetti go as far as to do absolutely nothing during a bank robbery that involves some deaths. Lurasetti is a bit more of a voice of reason, but he ends up going along with everything that Ridgeman does anyway. Zahler somehow manages to make a proposal scene where the guy is not asking a variation of “will you marry me”? and isn’t even anywhere near the woman very touching, and even does well with a re-occurring motif that could have come across as silly, where somebody is dying and asks somebody else, even sometimes this person’s killer, to give a beloved or a friend something. Despite seeming random at times, the structure is actually very well thought out. And despite the leisurely pacing, there’s a lot of violence and cruelty including several splattery if quick head shootings, and much poor treatment of a hostage including a “pee-ing” scene that isn’t even properly shown yet due to its personal nature may upset some viewers more than the key scene I mentioned earlier. Zahler and the camera of cinematographer Benji Bakshi like to keep back so that we feel like observers, which of course sometimes makes things harder to bear, and also means that Zahler can’t really be accused of wallowing in violence, though some may be startled by how realistic-seeming his death scenes tend to be.
The filming is mostly very relaxed in style, with some dialogue scenes done in one lengthy shot, while some of the final third, taking place in and outside a warehouse, is virtually play-like with one big stage in the middle and characters either side while very stagy lighting abounds. There’s some rather ugly colour correction earlier on especially some blue-heavy stuff near the beginning, but also plenty of neat single shots, usually making strong use of shadow in the grand old noir tradition. Humour is understandably limited, reduced to some songs whose lyrics comment on what’s happening almost like a Greek chorus, and a few quirky touches like black guys wearing “white face”. There are cameos by the likes of Don Johnson and Udo Keir to enjoy. But overall Zahler has created a commendably tough, uncompromising yet still very human watch that goes against prevailing fashions in several ways – and is all the better for it. An example I haven’t yet mentioned is the way that, unlike so many other films that feel the need to explain every little angle and even tell us several times what characters are doing, this one lets the viewer fill in the blanks, and it’s very refreshing. I also think that, if you’re a fan of crime movies of the gritty, no-nonsense kind, you must definitely give this one a go. Length? Pah! I’d have been okay if it was even longer.