Over the last few years, S. Craig Zahler has quietly established himself as one of genre cinema’s most exciting filmmakers. Well, maybe not quietly — “Bone Tomahawk” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” abound in broken bones, cracked skulls, and tenderized flesh whose every violent wound registers with a sickening thud. These aren’t pleasant experiences, and yet they’re made with such skill that they’re impossible to dismiss as mere grindhouse fare — Zahler knows what he’s doing, and anyone watching knows it, too.
The writer/director is back at Venice for the second consecutive year with “Dragged Across Concrete,” which reunites him with “Brawl” star Vince Vaughn alongside Mel Gibson in an excruciatingly good inverted police procedural that finds the line between cop and criminal at its most porous. Those familiar with Zahler’s prior features will be on edge for every one of the film’s 159 minutes, as they’ll know how quickly and brutally the violence can come; the film isn’t quite as graphic as its predecessors, thank heavens, but to say that it still isn’t for the faint of heart would be an understatement.
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As with “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” the title refers to something that doesn’t happen until the end of the movie — and this time it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Gibson and Vaughn are Brett Ridgeman and Tony Lurasetti, respectively, two cops in the fictional Bulwark Police Department inclined toward excessive force and other frowned-upon methods. They’re suspended after being caught on camera doing something they shouldn’t have, leading them to see how the other side lives, and you can probably guess how that works out for them.
Zahler can officially lay claim to imitating Quentin Tarantino’s cool-guys-with-guns dialogue better than anyone else around, with Vaughn and Gibson’s banter helping the runtime move along just as it does their many stakeouts. These aren’t nice guys, complaining at length about how men aren’t men anymore when they aren’t making casually racist jokes, but they’re good at what they do — which, for a time, is enough to keep our interest. Zahler is interested in characters whose singular determination engenders in them a kind of amorality — Vaughn brutally murders several men in “Brawl” in order to prevent harm from coming to his wife, doing so without joy but also without hesitation. (The director’s women are largely relegated to damsels in distress, though Jennifer Carpenter, who’s also in his latest, did get a few shots in.)
Here his two leads are both strapped for cash, and as he nears 60 with an ailing wife and frequently harassed daughter in their not-so-great neighborhood, Ridgeman is more willing to cross the thin line separating the two sides of the law. Like all bad ideas, his plan — to tail a high-profile drug trafficker and part him from his ill-gotten gains — has a logic of his own and, once set in motion, proves exceedingly difficult to stop.
That’s all well and good, though hardly the making of a crime classic, so it’s something of an aha! moment when “Dragged Across Concrete” lays out its cleverest conceit: What Ridgeman and Lurasetti happen upon ends up being so disturbing to them that, in trying to moonlight as criminals, they end up letting their law-enforcement instincts take over and become cops again. There are some lines that even they won’t cross.
Zahler maintains a calm, steady hand over the increasingly brutal proceedings, which is a kind of trick — he puts you at ease when you should be on alert. Even so, stay vigilant while watching “Dragged Across Concrete”: Zahler takes his time with all this, sometimes more than he needs to, but the payoff is worth it — he’s a master of tension and release, and once the different narrative threads are woven together it’s difficult to imagine the buildup being any different.
Few filmmakers come to mind who could orchestrate these slow-burning set pieces with such precision; it’s like watching a chess game in which everyone thinks they’re a king but most of them are pawns. (He isn’t always kind, though, devoting an entire extended sequence to introducing a new character just to kill them off moments later — the death registers with more weight than it otherwise would have, but the moment still feels cruel.)
Vaughn has rarely been better than in these two consecutive films with Zahler, so much so that you may find yourself what went so wrong with his not-so-different character on the second season of “True Detective;” the actor delivers Zahler’s witticisms with ease but could barely mumble Nic Pizzolatto’s high-minded musings with a straight face. Gibson, now fully back in the Hollywood fold after directing himself to an Oscar nomination with “Hacksaw Ridge,” subverts the “Lethal Weapon” persona that made him an international star by never letting us forget that this cop should be off the streets, however much we’d prefer for him not to die on his ill-advised quest.
And yet that quest feels worth it in the end, if not for the men onscreen than certainly for those watching it. “Dragged Across Concrete” may be a hard movie to love, but it’s a much harder one not to respect and even admire.
“Dragged Across Concrete” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Summit Entertainment will release it theatrically.