There are about seven metres of intestine inside the average person, and slowly but surely in his burgeoning directorial career, S Craig Zahler is showing us all of them. Echoing the infamous human bisection in ‘Bone Tomahawk’, his overlong but enjoyable new crime thriller ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ has a ruthless bank robber rummaging about inside a corpse. Somewhere in there is a key that, for reasons we don’t really need to get into, has been swallowed, regurgitated and then re-swallowed. It’s a scene that’ll be pretty hard to dislodge next time the house keys go missing.
After giving us the horror western (‘Bone Tomahawk’) and the horror prison drama (‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’) – not to mention writing an actual horror (‘Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich’) – Zahler actually tones things down a little this time. The title may promise more head-stomping and heavy-metal action beats, but ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ showcases a different, talkier side of the writer-director. Riffing on that old notion that cops and robbers are two sides of a very thin coin, he proceeds to blur the line between them to the point of erasure. There’s police corruption, a heist-gone-bad and a shootout scenario straight out of the John Carpenter playbook, but most of all there’s yakking. A whole lot of it.
The two cops are Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson, channelling Riggs and Murtaugh), 59 years old and still doing stakeouts and busting drug dealers on the street with his younger, smarter partner Tony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn, reuniting with his ‘Cell Block 99’ director). Ridgeman’s crude methods and lack of political instincts have seen him passed over for promotion for three decades. When a heavy-handed arrest is captured on camera, the pair are slapped with a six-week suspension. ‘It’s not healthy to scuff concrete as long as you have,’ Lurasetti tells Ridgeman. ‘There’s a lot of imbeciles out there,’ his jaded partner shoots back.
To complicate things, Ridgeman’s wife (Laurie Holden, ‘The Walking Dead’) has MS and his daughter faces daily harassment in the impoverished suburb they’re desperately trying to escape from. His plight is mirrored by Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), an ex-con fresh out of prison with a wheelchair-bound brother and a mum turning tricks to pay the bills. Lurasetti has an engagement ring to pay for and a cop’s salary that isn’t cutting the mustard.
As a pretext for them all getting mixed up in the same bank robbery, it’s slightly thin – the risks seem to wildly outweigh the potential rewards, especially for the rogue cops – but Zahler carries you along with some languorous tension-building filled with hard-boiled patter. The dialogue has a nicely off-kilter feel, with Lurasetti endearingly fond of a daft epithet (‘It’s bad like lasagne in a can’). When the scenes run on a beat or two (or 12) longer than you’d expect, you don’t really mind. You’d call it Tarantino-esque but for the pacing and lack of a soundtrack. (Tarantino might have cut a couple of the baggy subplots too.)
More problematic are some of the racial politics at play. A subplot that zones in on vindictive African-Americans as the motivation for the Ridgemans fleeing their neighbourhood feels lazy and reductive. And you couldn’t accuse Gibson of swerving his past controversies in taking on a character who butts up against every line you might care to mention – or the director in casting him. It’s a gutsy call – but then again, guts are Zahler’s currency.