We are currently in a mini golden age for Ronseal-named films. The exclamation mark in superhero movie Shazam! hints at its eager-to-please, jazz-hands charm. The ominous title of deep-sea diving doc Last Breath girds you for the potential scubageddon ahead. And then there’s Dragged Across Concrete, about to appear on multiplex now showing screens in close proximity to Dumbo, and Lord help any harried parent with young kids in tow who gets the two mixed up.
As well as an evocatively harsh name suitable for any disreputable grindhouse movie from the 1970s, Dragged Across Concrete could also accurately describe the feeling of watching this morally murky and painfully methodical crime thriller, where long and generally static scenes of watchfulness are abruptly punctuated by bursts of harrowing violence. It is a punishingly drawn-out experience but even at an Avengers: Infinity War length of 158 minutes, the plot is deceptively simple: three desperate people who, by doing desperate things, are irrevocably set on a collision course.
Recently released black convict Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) returns to a domestic situation so bleak that he vows to salvage it any way he can. Meanwhile, cynical cop partners Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended after footage of a racially charged drug bust hits the media. All of them need cash, and are prepared to do anything to get it. For Johns, that means signing up as a getaway driver for a big score, although that makes it sound a lot more glamorous than the reality. For the flinty Ridgeman and glib Lurasetti – after the obligatory scene of handing over their badges – it means trying life on the other side of the line, because if you’re ripping off criminals, where’s the harm?
After a lifetime of playing livewire cops on screen, the actor now seems drained of any maverick energy,
The casting of Gibson as a borderline racist detective will be too much of a hurdle for some, since it seems to trade on his own well-publicised history of offensive meltdowns. But after a lifetime of playing livewire cops on screen, the actor now seems drained of any maverick energy: Ridgeman is a ravaged relic, his authoritarian push-broom moustache perhaps the only thing holding him together. In his tough-guy leather jacket, Lurasetti has a little more swagger but it slowly leaches away as he edges closer to a point of no return. Even in this morally compromised milieu – Dragged Across Concrete is set in a fictional but recognisably contemporary US city named Bulwark – a crooked cop is viewed as the lowest of the low.
Writer/director S Craig Zahler previously made the gothic western Bone Tomahawk and the skull-rattling prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99 (which also starred Vaughn in a rare non-motormouth role). Both films were distinctive and effective spins on well-established B-movie genres. With a high-stakes bank robbery at its core, Dragged Across Concrete seems like Zahler ruthlessly deconstructing the heist movie, eliminating rollicking montages in favour of long, inconclusive stakeouts while Ridgeman and Lurasetti try to jigsaw together their target’s plan. It withholds all of the usual joys except the traditional funky soundtrack: there are some welcome appearances from The O’Jays, albeit doled out in carefully measured doses.
Hollowing out the heist movie is not necessarily a bad thing but Zahler injects a callousness that is hard to take. Women, in particular, fare badly: brutalised and humiliated in ways that seem to go beyond merely reflecting the casual brutality of the criminal world. There is also a late stomach-churning scene involving a serrated knife that is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps going to see Dumbo wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
Dragged Across Concrete is in cinemas from April 19