By Chris Nashawaty
March 22, 2019 at 07:06 PM EDT
David Bukac/Summit Entertainment

When a movie is called Dragged Across Concrete, you can pretty much tell without seeing a single frame of it whether or not it’s for you. Lurid titles like that have become a bit of a signature for B-movie maestro S. Craig Zahler. The wildly talented writer-director’s previous films, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk and 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, were both squalid, scuzzy throwbacks to the grindhouse era. And even if his movies are the definition of “not for everyone”, in the small, disreputable corner of the cinema world in which he plies his pulpy trade, no one is doing what he does better than he’s doing it.

Technically speaking, there aren’t a lot of people who actually dragged across concrete in Dragged Across Concrete. But Zahler’s latest film is packed with enough crunchy violence, nasty behavior, and reprehensible characters that you might feel like you are as you sit there watching it. You don’t have to like these guys — and they are mostly guys — to enjoy the wallow either. After all, you never get the sense that Zahler’s endorsing his ugly characters’ brutal behavior so much as acknowledging that it exists and is worth looking at even if you have to avert your gaze.

Speaking of ugly characters, the film stars Mel Gibson as Brett Ridgeman, a cynical, racist cop in a fictional urban hell hole called Bulwark who, along with his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), gets in trouble for roughing up a Latino drug dealer and his girlfriend while making an arrest. The two cops are quickly suspended by their boss (Don Johnson, brief but excellent). Ridgeman sees it as another capitulation to the woke, PC societal forces that have turned old-school cops like him into dinosaurs with badges.

Meanwhile, an African-American ex-con (Tory Kittles) has just returned home from prison only to discover his junkie mother turning tricks to make ends meet. Kittles’ Henry Johns is just out, but he’s forced back on the streets to provide for his family. He’s the closest thing Zahler’s movie has to a sympathetic character, and you’re just waiting for him to collide with Gibson and Vaughn. And when I say “wait,” I do mean wait. Zahler has never been a storyteller in a hurry. Dragged Across Concrete clocks in at a leisurely two hours and 39 minutes. His M.O. is (and has always been) the slow build — a deliberately paced escalation of suspense and layer upon layer of Elmore Leonard wiseguy dialogue that builds to a crescendo of operatic violence and release. That said, Zahler easily could have trimmed 20 minutes out of the film without losing anything.

The fateful intersection between these two plot strands is sealed when Ridgeman decides that, without a badge holding him back, he’s no longer duty-bound to serve and protect. Mad as hell and not about to take it anymore, he hatches a plan to steal a fortune in gold bullion from some very bad guys. Big mistake. Vaughn’s Lurasetti reluctantly agrees to go along with his partner, and the best scenes in the film focus on the two suspended cops sitting in a car staking out their mark. With his weathered, rock tumbler rasp of a voice, Gibson gives his best performance in years. He dials down his manic need to entertain and goes for something more lived in, exhausted, angry, and real. If they ever remake Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, he’s a lock for the Warren Oates role. And Vaughn, who was so vividly terrifying in Brawl in Cell Block 99, seems to speak Zahler’s language fluently. A movie like this doesn’t have any use for a conscience, but he’s the closest thing it has to one anyway.

It gives nothing away to say that Dragged Across Concrete doesn’t end with the good guys winning. There are no good guys. But as you’re sitting in your seat wondering where this is all headed, you won’t be disappointed when it finally gets there. It’s a cliché to say that they don’t make movies like this anymore — nasty, nihilistic, nicotine-stained ‘70s death trips. But thank goodness that Zahler’s doing everything in his power to prove that cliché wrong. A-

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