Dragged Across Concrete

How good is Dragged Across Concrete? The actioner is pulling in rave reviews despite clearly being “ugly,” “vile,” and other things that make critics feel icky when they have to praise a movie with characters who aren’t inclusive enough to be part of the Marvel Universe. That’s a major triumph for writer/director S. Craig Zahler, who’s managed to beat the odds with an uncompromising opening trilogy of testosterone-crazed films worthy of Sam Fuller.

After his brutal debut with the caveman cannibal western Bone Tomahawk, followed by the underseen prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler could’ve simply settled for knocking out another terse tough-guy epic. Instead, Dragged Across Concrete flies across the screen as quickly as his other grindhouse beauties – despite running at two hours and 39 minutes of chewing up and spitting out a compelling cast of controversial characters.

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn officially star, respectively, as crass cops Ridgeman and Lurasetti, who get hit with an unpaid six-week suspension after they’re caught on video being slightly impolite to a local drug dealer. Frankly, that seems a little harsh. It’s left to Zahler to get footage of the two detectives later mocking the gangster’s deaf girlfriend.

They soon find themselves being lectured in their superior’s office about being politically incorrect.  An offended Lurasetti insists that he isn’t racist because “every Martin Luther King Day, I order a cup of dark roast.” He’s also buying an engagement ring for his African-American girlfriend, but he doesn’t bring that up because it’s none of your damn business.

Ridgeman, meanwhile, has to worry about his disabled wife and a bullied daughter because he’s too poor to live in a neighborhood that he isn’t gentrifying. Across town, however, Henry Johns has his own problems. He’s fresh out of prison and furious to find out that his junkie mother is turning tricks. Never mind that he’s already banged an old grade-school crush before even getting home to his mom and disabled brother. Henry’s still out to build a better life for everybody.

The ex-con is played by Tory Kittles in what would be a star-making role in a less problematic production – with Henry signing on to a bank robbery being plotted by the same psycho drug dealer that Ridgeman and Lurasetti are following around with plans to steal some reparations for their own financial plight.

The movie hits the two-hour mark just when Elmore Leonard would wrap things up by having a lead character assassinate all the secondary criminals. Instead, Dragged settles into a leisurely siege that’s beautifully shot while providing new levels of desperation. The film also finds time for a sad detour into the life of a passing character, along with the unlikely sight of Mel Gibson sitting across a desk from Udo Kier.

Zahler’s exploitation exploits also include a violent set piece that’s later revealed to make absolutely no sense, along with the discovery of Fred Melamed as the new Paul Bartel. The rotund actor was already in Zahler’s two previous pictures, but this one has the real showcase role. Gibson also gets to show off some fine range. (Vaughn’s good, but he got to show off a lot more range as the complicated anti-hero of Cell Block 99.)

There are also pleasant stretches set to a bad-ass blaxploitation score that Zahler (as with Cell Block 99) cowrote himself for maximum auteur action. That’s a trick that Tarantino hasn’t learned – with Dragged also easily showing up Robert Altman’s character studies in Short Cuts. It’s not quite as good as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but that one had to bring in Aimee Mann for the soundtrack.

So, logically, Zahler should be one of Hollywood’s hottest talents right now. Instead, Atlanta audiences have to skip the big screen and catch Dragged on VOD. The “repugnant” and “repellant” director doesn’t have anything new in production, either. Maybe it would serve Hollywood right if Zahler just went on to concentrate on something else after this hateful hat trick.

He could concentrate on screenwriting after salvaging a tired direct-to-video franchise with last year’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. Hopefully, there’s also something to rumors that an adaptation of Zahler’s crime novel Mean Business on North Ganson Street is being eyed by Leonardo DiCaprio. But as the credits roll on Dragged, it mainly seems that Zahler would do us all a favor by turning his back on an ungrateful cinema and becoming a full-time soul man.