You might not guess from the title, but “Dragged Across Concrete” is, on one level, the tale of two long-suffering families, both in dire need of salvation, or at least a big payday. Mel Gibson is Brett Ridgeman, a grizzled police detective facing a six-week suspension, the latest bout of bad news for him; his chronically ill wife, Melanie (Laurie Holden); and their teenage daughter. Tory Kittles plays Henry Johns, a thief who returns home from prison to find his mom, a heroin addict, prostituting herself in the small apartment she shares with his disabled younger brother.
Grindhouse auteur S. Craig Zahler (“Bone Tomahawk,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99”) likes to stack the decks against his characters with almost mathematical rigor, then watch as they slowly (so slowly) try to wriggle their way out. He draws a lot of connections between the disgruntled white lawman and the wily black ex-con, sometimes with a hard nudge: In one scene, Ridgeman watches a TV show about lion cubs with his daughter, while in another, Johns plays a hunting-safari-themed video game with his brother. There will be more hunting to come, as both men resolve to beat the system that has long been rigged against them.
It’s a given that their paths will intersect, although the film, unfolding in the leisurely, loquacious style that has become Zahler’s elevated-B-movie signature, has no interest in skipping ahead. Indeed, the story I’ve described so far is just one of many that “Dragged Across Concrete” seems intent on squeezing into its 158-minute running time.
For most of it, Gibson’s costar is not Kittles but Vince Vaughn, who plays Ridgeman’s partner, Anthony Lurasetti. He’s in the same leaky boat as his colleague, having been suspended just as he’s about to propose to a girlfriend he fears he doesn’t deserve. (He’s right.) The movie begins as a buddy-cop procedural and a roundelay of working-class despair, then escalates slowly into a heist-gone-wrong thriller en route to a climactic face-off.
Along the way, it dabbles in the waters of nose-thumbing provocation, regularly clearing its throat to give voice to some of its characters’ casual bigotry and brutality. Melanie, who once prided herself on her liberalism, laments the state of their run-down neighborhood, specifically the black teenagers who regularly harass their daughter on her way home from school. Ridgeman and Lurasetti take sly pot-shots at minorities and humiliate a half-naked deaf Latina suspect; upon being disciplined, they wax nostalgic for a bygone era of political incorrectness. In the good old bad old days, a veteran cop wouldn’t have had to worry about roughing up a suspect and having the incident turn into a viral embarrassment.
Back then too it probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow to cast Gibson as an avatar of slow-simmering white male rage — a role he plays here with focused, quietly riveting expertise — or as one-half of a crooked-cop duo. The other half is Vaughn, an outspoken Hollywood libertarian who may or may not be acting when his character snarls, “There’s certainly nothing hypocritical about the media handling every perceived intolerance with complete and utter intolerance” — one of the more belabored wink-wink lines in a screenplay that’s frequently more taken with its cleverness than actually clever.
But hey, point taken. “Dragged Across Concrete” has been made with enough skill and moody, meticulous craftsmanship — another Zahler signature — to earn its own measure of tolerance, or at least some closer scrutiny. To these eyes, the story’s reactionary politics feel less like a declaration of principles than a sly, disingenuous pose. If you’re enraged by this movie — or, for that matter, if you find yourself cheering it on — you’ve already fallen into its trap.
Qualified admiration feels like the saner response, though you might also call it qualified disappointment. Zahler has reteamed with a lot of familiar faces here — chiefly Vaughn, who gave a staggering lead performance in “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” but also returning players like Don Johnson, Fred Melamed and Udo Kier — but few of them are used as effectively. Ditto the thick, pooling shadows in which the director reliably drapes his characters’ homes, cars and other gloomy environs, providing a strained, squint-inducing correlative to the darkness that lurks within.
As always, it takes Zahler a while to get going, but going he eventually gets. If you are not entirely won over by the long, drawn-out Tarantino-esque convolutions of his dialogue, you can at least admire the patience and precision with which the story and its various moving parts come together. They include a bullet-proof van, a shipment of gold bullion and a ruthless drug dealer named Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who turns out to be both a mastermind and a mark.
Vogelmann enlists John and his friend Biscuit (a sympathetic Michael Jai White) to help him rob a bank, a carefully timed plot that is fatefully intercepted by Ridgeman and Lurasetti, who have decided to surrender their scruples along with their badges. Long, talky stakeouts and even longer, talkier car rides ensue, during which the actors easily hold your interest, charging even the slower cadences of their stylized dialogue with rhythmic unease. Zahler only really grips you, alas, with his trademark ferocious displays of violence, which felt like a logical endgame in “Bone Tomahawk” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” but too often smack here of pointless sadism.
One of the most ill-treated characters is Kelly, a bank employee who might have registered as an afterthought, like most of the women in the story, but who is made intensely memorable by Jennifer Carpenter, another “Brawl” alum. Like Ridgeman, Johns and all the rest, Kelly has a family to take care of and a job to do. Hers is easily the most compelling story told in “Dragged Across Concrete,” and sadly the shortest.
‘Dragged Across Concrete’
Rating: R, for strong violence, grisly images, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes