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Smooth ‘70s-style original soul-funk tracks that director S. Craig Zahler wrote with co-composer Jeff Herriott — a handful of them performed by artists from that era, The O’Jays and Butch Tavares — inject a chill vibe into Dragged Across Concrete. Otherwise only minimal scoring is used, the thinking being that the scenes should breathe according to their own rhythms and nothing should pollute the direct connection of the actors via their characters to the audience. That’s all well and good, but if ever a movie needed some extra muscle from a moody soundtrack, it’s this too-cool-for-school crime thriller about two cops gone rogue, which often lets its pulse rate slow to a crawl.
The pairing of Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, playing detectives suspended from duty when their casual racism and excessive force are caught on video during an arrest, should stoke some interest in this Summit Entertainment release. But the insanely self-indulgent running time of two hours and 40 minutes and the tendency to undercut tension with fussy dialogue that continually draws attention to its cleverness make Zahler’s third feature a lot less fun than it seems to think it is.
The writer-director’s first and best film, the 2015 cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk, signaled him as a bold talent with a knack for genre reinvention and a natural flair for drawing flavorful characterizations from his actors. He continued last year with Brawl in Cell Block 99, a juicy slab of grindhouse exploitation meat that cast a menacing Vaughn as a human demolition machine in a jailhouse from hell.
This latest effort from the novelist-turned-filmmaker is less distinctive than either of its predecessors. It’s a more familiar brand of crime yarn, capably plotted but weakened almost from the outset by its very studied deadpan humor and unjustified bloat, as if Zahler were working counterintuitively against the basic rules of action suspense. Even the constant jabs at political correctness, designed to neutralize charges of racism or sexism with a heavy-handed wink, grow tiresome fast. And the slow-burn approach that has worked so well for Zahler in the past misses the mark here because the new film appears to be simmering toward explosive violence that fails to pack much sustained punch when it finally does ignite.
Seasoned detective Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) and his younger partner Tony Lurasetti (Vaughn) are the central characters, but the story is split between their perspective and that of Henry Johns (Tory Kittles). In fact, the movie opens on the smart young black dude fresh out of prison, engaging in some artfully lit humping with an old elementary-school crush (Vivian Ng). His low-level crim buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White) wastes no time attempting to recruit Henry for a job; he hesitates only until he learns that his junkie mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) is six months behind in the rent, and turning tricks in the house she shares with Henry’s disabled kid brother (Myles Truitt).
Meanwhile, Ridgeman has his own financial troubles not helped by six weeks’ suspension without pay. After the offending incident during the arrest of a Mexican-American suspect, Ridgeman’s boss and former partner, Chief Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson), tells him that being branded a racist today is like being branded a Communist in the 1950s. Ridgeman’s ex-cop wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) has multiple sclerosis and his teenage daughter Sara (Jordan Ashley Olson) is being bullied by black kids on the street, making him determined to get them out of there to a better neighborhood.
Henry and Ridgeman both find themselves in need of quick cash, which lands them on opposite sides of a major operation headed by slick Euro-criminal Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). Also drawn into a situation destined to keep spiraling further out of control is Tony, whose plan to propose to his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones) hits a bump with the suspension. Then there’s new mother Kelly Summer (Jennifer Carpenter), a bank loan officer whose separation anxiety as she leaves her infant son at home to return to work for the first time is so overstated she’s like a jittery crackhead.
Along with Vaughn, Johnson and Carpenter, the other Cell Block 99 alum returning here is the reliably arch Udo Kier as a menswear retailer with shady connections, while Fred Melamed, who appeared in that film as well as Bone Tomahawk, plays Kelly’s boss at the bank. In a movie with stiff competition for the most overwritten, phony dialogue, his character takes the prize for oratorical pomposity.
Nobody in Dragged Across Concrete talks like a real person. Even as the two sidelined cops discuss breaking moral codes they have mostly honored throughout their professional lives, they prattle on like glib versions of a Raymond Chandler detective. “This is a bad idea,” says Tony. “It’s bad for you and it’s bad for me. It’s bad like lasagna in a can.” Zahler is clearly so pleased with some of his wordsmithery that he has characters repeating things that hit the ear with a thud the first time. Twice Tony refers to taking a nap during a stakeout as “processing air.” The crooks also are chatty smartasses. “Do you wish to expand upon your critique?” one of them asks Henry. “Give us the urban point of view?”
Plenty of directors have stuck great gobs of sculpted dialogue in the mouths of their characters without sacrificing tension, Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh to name two. But the writing here is neither stylized nor sharp enough for it to seem anything but forced. That and the slack pacing drain much of the anxiety out of the extended bloody shootout that provides the movie’s climactic set-piece.
While Kittles has an appealing presence as Henry, the most fully rounded and consistently watchable performance is Gibson’s — though he’s so low-key that you long for him to go a little wild with a touch of Martin Riggs, the batshit-crazy cop he played in the big-screen Lethal Weapon franchise. Those films also had a playful dynamic with Gibson sparking off Danny Glover as Riggs’ by-the-book partner. The script here never manages to make Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s verbal sparring sound spontaneous. Nor does it succeed in building emotional texture into the older man’s concern, evolving into regret, that he got his younger buddy caught up in so much strife.
One good thing to be said for Zahler’s latest is that it trades the flat video look of Brawl in Cell Block 99 for a lustrous widescreen canvas, with much of the key action unfolding at night to good effect. But in most respects, Dragged Across Concrete is a low-energy, long-winded disappointment.
Production companies: Unified Pictures, Cinestate, in association with Look to the Sky Films, The Fyzz Facility, Realmbuilder Productions
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White, Thomas Kretschmann, Jennifer Carpenter, Laurie Holden, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Fred Melamed, Justine Warrington, Matthew MacCaull, Primo Allon, Jordyn Ashley Olson, Myles Truitt, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tattiawna Jones
Director-screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler
Producers: Keith Kjarval, Dallas Sonnier, Tyler Jackson, Jack Heller, Sefton Fincham
Executive producers: Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Shafin Diamond Tejani, Levi Sheck, Mike Rowe, Dean Buchanan, Ben Ruffman
Director of photography: Benji Bakshi
Production designer: Brian Davie
Costume designer: Tanya Lipke
Music: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler
Editor: Greg D’Auria
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd, Corinne Clark, Jennifer Page
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Bloom Media
Rated R, 158 minutes
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