Dragged Across Concrete, writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s latest genre-bending spectacle of sporadically ultraviolent, meticulously articulate weirdness, premiered last week in a handful of theaters and on VOD. In it, Hollywood pariahs Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play a couple of not-so-good cops in a fictional city named Bulwark (no offense, TruCons) who get suspended when they’re caught on video using excessive force on a Hispanic drug dealer. Going six weeks without pay really hits them in their already-thin wallets, so they get the bright idea to stake out a different drug dealer and rip him off. I’m not spoiling the movie to say that things do not go according to their plan, which isn’t so much a plan as a wish. They’re basically the Keystone Kops with better hardware and worse racial views.
The movie is barely getting a release, and at this point there are more reviews than tickets sold. It’s at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t bad. But there’s a strain that runs through most of the reviews I’ve read: “Yeah, it’s good, but… is it permissible? These characters say racist things, and Mel Gibson is bad IRL, which means the movie is racist!” This only makes sense if you completely ignore the events of the film.
I can’t really go any further without spoiling anything, so if you want to see this movie but haven’t yet, be advised.
WARNING: DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE SPOILERS AHEAD
Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn) are two borderline-dirty cops who finally cross the line and become outright criminals. Their rationale will be familiar to viewers of The Shield and other highlights of the bad-cop genre: “We put our lives on the line every day and get paid crap for it, while the criminal scumbags we keep trying to put away are living in luxury. Where’s our piece of the pie?” Ridgeman and Lurasetti are bad guys who convince themselves they’re good guys with no other choice. They do something really stupid, for selfish reasons. They’re not role models. They’re not tragic heroes fighting the system that failed them. They’re greedy, self-deluding idiots.
And they get killed for it.
The racist white cops do not prevail. They do not ride off into the sunset. They go up against some guys who are more devious and ruthless than they are, and they lose.
And who’s the winner? This guy.
Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is one of the criminals the two dumb cops try to rip off, and he’s the only main character still standing at the end of the film. Not just standing, but standing tall. He literally digs graves for Ridgeman and Lurasetti, and then he walks away with millions of dollars in gold bullion. The epilogue finds him in a luxurious mansion with his once-impoverished mother and younger brother, enjoying the fruits of his ill-gotten gains. He won, and life is good.
There are no good guys in the story, but Henry is the least-bad guy. He’s the smartest, most honorable, and most sympathetic character in the whole movie, and I found myself rooting for him. He outwits both his double-crossing criminal compatriots and a double-crossing cop, and he does it without letting them get away with their open racism. (One of the other criminals, a soft-spoken, fully masked wraithlike figure who kills enough minorities and spouts enough vile-but-clever racial insults to make him an inevitable alt-right icon, pedantically criticizes Henry’s use of Ebonics. Henry’s retort is on point: “You understood me, didn’t you?” Henry says the exact same thing later when Ridgeman corrects his grammar. The white dudes all underestimate him, and they all pay for it.)
Even Henry’s criminal record is honorable. We see him in the opening scene, celebrating his release from prison with a, um… let’s call her an old friend. But it isn’t until the end of the movie that we learn why Henry was locked up: He nearly killed the man who put his little brother in a wheelchair.
Henry’s not a nice guy, but he’s not evil either. He kills Ridgeman, but only after Ridgeman doubts his word and holds him at gunpoint. They had come to an agreement, and Ridgeman immediately broke it. Ridgeman offends Henry’s sense of honor, with fatal consequences.
A flawed but honorable black man defeats a bunch of arrogant white racists. Their privilege does not protect them. The End.
It’s fantasy wish fulfillment for the Black Lives Matter crowd. It’s a Spike Lee wet dream. It’s #wokeAF. And to me, at least, it’s enormously satisfying. I liked both of Zahler’s previous flicks, and I think this is his best yet.
Despite all this, a lot of the critics saw the movie in their heads and not the one onscreen. They figured that because Mel Gibson said a bunch of drunken racist crap 10 years ago — in private phone conversations, by the way, with a woman who profited handsomely from leaking the audio — then his casting must be some sort of political statement. Zahler must approve of Gibson’s personal views, and putting the words of a racist cop in Gibson’s mouth is somehow a victory for racists everywhere. They scoff when Zahler insists that he’s just trying to tell a compelling story, using compelling actors. He’s just trolling, they claim. Owning the libs. Gibson and Vaughn are conservatives, or right-wingers, or whatever bad thing they’re not supposed to be in Hollywood, so watching them play these characters is very problematic for movie critics who want their friends to like them.
I have no problem with Gibson and Vaughn playing racists who get killed. I was glad to see a black man win. I thought Tory Kittles was great, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Guess that’s just me.
P.S. And to the reviewers who jokingly complained that nobody actually got dragged across concrete: Pay closer attention.
That sound. That horrible scraping sound. That’s what the movie is about. That’s why Zahler made it the title. Do better, critics.