Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has just been released from prison, and returns to the apartment he shared with his mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and disabled brother (Myles Truitt) to something he could well do without: his brother locked in his bedroom while his mother turns tricks with a client in her bedroom. Disgusted with her, he knows he will have to find a fortune to lift his family out of the gutter, and it just so happens he has arranged to be a getaway driver for an upcoming heist, but across the city of Bulwark a pair of cops, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are about to find their strongarm tactics have no place in the modern world...
Dragged Across Concrete was the third directorial effort from S. Craig Zahler, who had been adopted by a certain type of moviegoer who warmed to his films' brutality and trampling of any kind of sentimental, even sensitive feelings. Before long he had been claimed by the more conservative branch of society, the sort of person who goes online to complain bitterly about PC gone mad every chance they get, despite Zahler's claims his work was not political in the slightest, he was simply making thrillers for adults who could take the extreme nature of his material. Perhaps for that reason, there were scenes here which seemed to be baiting both the left and the right.
It was difficult to regard the outcome of the raid we see the two cops conduct, where they have been reprimanded for police brutality and have their boss warn them in a fashion that practically has Don Johnson winking at the camera when he says you have to be careful what you say wherever you are since being accused of racism now is the equivalent of being accused of Communism in the nineteen-fifties, as anything but Zahler having some fun at somebody's expense, though he was too smart to allow his screenplay to be too obvious whom. Both sides of the politically polarised society he sprang from could claim he was speaking for them, either as satire or as utterly sincere.
It assuredly offered what was an extended and meticulous breakdown of a crime as it was being conducted a real charge, for in spite of its leisurely, careful pacing it was never clear whether we were in the hands of a concerned citizen or a madman who somehow got to play out his violent fantasies on the big screen. The director was not about to cut things down for anyone (much to the chagrin of the studio which made this), nor was he going to make the bloodshed anything but sickeningly realistic, much in the same manner his previous two efforts had been, though this was noticeably less cartoonish in its intensity, though no less dedicated to making the audience squirm. Be that through making them wait for the payoffs in each sequence or rendering those pay-offs as callous as possible.
With Gibson you had a star carrying a lot of baggage, he had long since hit the comeback trail and appeared in tough action thrillers like this one, while his well-received Hacksaw Ridge had landed him with apparently renewed acceptance, despite many unwilling to allow the memory of his drunken rants to pass from the consciousness. The film was well aware of that with many references to his public misdemeanours feeding into a redemption theme that grew in stature as its tone did, where if Ridgeman makes good on cracking the heist, he can also make off with the gold bullion and spare his ailing wife (Laurie Holden among many performances in this which managed a depth with just a few sketched scenes, testament to the well-crafted screenplay) and vulnerable daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olson) a life in a shithole of a community. Lurasetti is along to help out, loyalty about the most valuable commodity here, contrasted with Johns and his "partner" Biscuit (Michael Jai White) who are on a course to meet them.
A course tempered by some truly revoltingly amoral villains who could just provide their tickets to a better life, though not without a price. Cold opens were used more than once (Jennifer Carpenter's introduction initially seems important until you twig why we have been given so much backstory on her character), the dialogue was curiously timeless and non-specific while also getting to the point with spare intensity, and the old classic action era cliché of the maverick cops was given a workout that at once criticised their arrogance (they do mess up) and respected their bravery. It was too facile to describe this as politically incorrect, it was more complex than any kneejerk reaction whatever your preference, and if your idea of right-on cinema was everyone being nice and respectful, this was a riposte that stated thrillers would never be made again under those conditions. It said a lot that both champions and critics of this ignored the complexity of the African-American characters (so well acted). A feast for those able to stay the course, its lack of brevity both positive and negative. Zahler composed the music and songs, too (sung by Tavares and the O'Jays!).