Unfolding like a novel, Dallas filmmaker S. Craig Zahler’s pulpy morality tale is both character piece and sprawling crime drama. Zahler follows two corrupt-ish police officers (Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn) and an ex-con (a terrific Tory Kittles) on his own journey in the fictional city of Bulwark, a place of typical poverty and plenty of crime.
Long-take dialogue in stake-out cars, fire escapes, and getaway vehicles is interspersed with brief flashes of violence, all of it evoking real life through good ol’ peace and quiet. Zahler doesn’t avoid the in-between moments, the eating, thinking, driving that people do when they’re not talking or taking real action of some kind. That’s real life, even if, in Zahler’s case, real life involves the occasional monologue or clever zinger. Loaded with odd lingo and too-clever talkiness, Concrete eschews realism for pithiness sometimes, alternating between the sound of real people and the sound of actors on a stage. Vaughn and Gibson are in top form as Tony Lurassetti and Brett Ridgeman, suspended without pay and cast adrift without purpose following a leaked video of their rather tame strong-arm tactics. As their mellow lieutenant (Don Johnson) put it to Ridgeman, “You’re losing perspective and compassion. There’s a reason I’m sitting behind this desk running things, and you’re out there with a partner that’s twenty years younger than you.” The long years are more than weathering for a cop, they’re hardening, forcing you to grow old and awful when faced with depravity every beat and every day.
Worried for his young daughter who’s at the mercy of neighborhood bullies, and his ailing wife who’s at the mercy of multiple sclerosis, Ridgeman concocts a scheme to take back what they feel they’re owed for so many years toiling away. Lurassetti, himself hard up for money with hopes of marriage, tags along reluctantly, and thus begins their inevitable descent into a criminal underworld they know all too well, one ripe with men even meaner than they are, men for whom other people are mere accessories. Thomas Kretschmann is a high-end dealer on a mission, and Kittles’ ex-con and his childhood friend (Michael Jai White) are the hired help, two guys just trying to get by like the cops on their tail. They know they’re in over their head the minute they meet two sidekicks with a chilling demeanor and a trigger-happy finger, both decked in goggled masks and black, pseudo-Special Forces outfits. These various cons, cops, and criminals will eventually meet in the barren wasteland of a far-gone warehouse district, to dish out their own version of justice as Zahler dishes out fatalism. His movie is grim in spots, depicting a world of casual violence and nonchalance. He stops just short of cloying cynicism, opting for moral ambiguity and a glimmer of hope in equal measure.
Concrete is neither racist nor misogynistic, too predictably a victim of think-piece culture and shallow pundits who regard any film with a different pulse an affront to humanity. Vaughn’s character has no patience or willingness for political correctness, and Gibson’s character might be an out-and-out racist, but there’s no shame in telling a story about men who are morally peculiar or outright bankrupt. They’re somewhat likable and somewhat despicable and let’s be honest, most people are both. Ridgeman’s love for his ill wife and Lurassetti’s affection for his black fiance-to-be complicates the matter of calling them either of those things, grounding them in a humanity that looks very much like real people. They’re hard-asses and assholes, stickin’ out like a sore thumb in a world run by progressive media and social media hounds (their video ends up on YouTube), and yet they are still people despite their lack of people skills or true heroism. Henry Johns (Kittles) is the hero you’re looking for, a black man beset by his past but looking to pull up his hooking mother and disabled younger brother by their bootstraps, or his own, or whatever means at his disposal. He’s the least-bad guy in a sea of bad guys, and that makes him the good guy for those in need of a little less ambiguity. This move is much like Dr. King’s famous quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
S. Craig Zahler has an ear for odd dialogue, and he has one for cleverness too. His film is fascinating for its un-quirky, offbeat pulse as well as that terse ambiguity. While it won’t be for everyone, too unconcerned with making an audience feel good about two complicated protagonists, Dragged Across Concrete is a page-turner on screen, using palpable tension and furious talent to exact a slow-burning tragedy.