Dragged Across Concrete starts with a metaphoric title that vividly conveys the feeling of suffering, bitterness, and struggle. Director-writer S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99) extends that sympathy to several different characters: veteran cop Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson); his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn); and Henry Johns, a.k.a. Slim (Tory Kittles), an ex-con petty crook they encounter as part of an elaborate bank robbery.
Zahler’s observation takes us past these men’s ethnic, age, and sociological differences to find common depth. All are strivers. Each man is subject to dubious choices. Zahler’s crime-and-stakeout plot shows these men making personal decisions out of various, overlapping needs: Ridgeman fends for his wife and child and pursues the professional entitlement he hasn’t received. Lurasetti acts out of training and loyalty. Slim’s lifelong habit is to oppose every situation that threatens to do him in. This might seem schematic, but Zahler’s filmmaking compels a viewer’s interest by concentrating on ethical suspense. At every moment you wonder: What will this man do next?
Zahler is interested in how grave circumstances bring personality to light. “Action is character,” Walter Hill decreed, and Zahler thinks in action-movie terms. His violent scenarios take time to unravel in order to find the essence of individual behavior, through either stress or the mundane. In Zahler’s narratives, every moment is fateful.
The opening scene of Slim, just out of prison and enjoying carnal relief with an Asian-American hooker, portrays rude diversity. But there’s a personal aspect to their hook-up that is so believable, their convergence feels like e pluribus unum. It’s a brief encounter such as John Dos Passos might conceive, but only a pop-culture eccentric would dare.
It is Zahler, unlike other modern directors making noise about race and representation, who introduces the most credible black male movie character this decade. Toby Kittles has the talent and good fortune to bring emotional substance to a figure most often seen as a SamJack cutup. (Slim’s facial scar suggests a deliberate rebuke to The Wire’s Omar.) He’s sullen because he’s frustrated, a man society has infantilized — dragged across concrete just as the empathetic police chief (played by Don Johnson) reasons that Ridgeman has “scuffed pavement too long.” Slim’s retreat into a video-game jungle parallels the real-life “Street Safari” that he must traverse with similar cunning. Beneath his profanity lie intelligence (Zahler gives him a brilliant gaffe, saying “exacerbate” when he means “exasperate”) and brotherly compassion. Kittles’s warmth suggests the young Morgan Freeman we never got to see. Gibson and Vaughn’s characterizations, presenting the ethos of white-American-male struggle, are equally solid, but Kittles’s principled thug seems new.
At last, we have an American filmmaker who has experienced Tarantino and got past it. Zahler’s surprisingly felt art is not predicated on movie violence, even though genre violence is his métier. Despite Zahler’s heightened form of crime fantasy, Dragged Across Concrete presents a strangely naturalistic worldview. Instead of imagining how heartless — or “cool” — mankind can be, Zahler looks for hidden virtues in each situation, no matter how bizarre. Ridgeman, Lurasetti, and Slim shift between being foes and allies. Dare I say, Zahler dramatizes what, in classic Westerns and crime films, used to be considered their Americanness.
Most Hollywood movies — post-Tarantino — distract us from viewing American life as a unique experience. Zahler gravitates toward the violent and the outré as comic aspects of American greed and lust. But he doesn’t stop there, as Tarantino does. Zahler’s characters are full of yearning (uncorrupted desire and love). That explains the plot digression about an anxious new mother (Jennifer Carpenter) reentering the workforce. Her fate triggers the heroic rescue action that will determine each man’s familial resolve.
“We’re it!” Ridgeman and Lurasetti realize when they reach a point of no return and must do their duty, true to their professional oath and to each other. This story of urban chivalry makes Dragged Across Concrete a homegrown alternative to the contemporary war movie that Hollywood has been unable to conceive, having lost the will to dramatize American unity, obligation, and valor.
Now that Hollywood has conceded to almost total triviality, propagating insipid forms of comic-book, video-game escapism, only a few movies (Mom and Dad, Vox Lux, Ray Meets Helen, The Mule, and David Ayer’s fine cop movie End of Watch) touch on the panic that lies beneath our distressed social relationships. Media-driven, our public lives disorient us from moral principles. This is what politicians misrepresent when spouting the cliché about “existential threat” — it’s a highfalutin means of cheap persuasion. But Zahler understands what that really means: His protagonists Ridgeman, Lurasetti, and Slim, law-enforcers and lawbreakers alike, come together in their alienation. They are in constant search of spiritual satisfaction and for nearly three hours, Zahler pays rapt attention to their quest.