This article contains minor spoilers.
The classic American action film is in a bad state. The once creatively and masterfully crafted blockbusters of the ’70s and ’80s have been replaced by a glut of soulless comic book films, where the action seems more like a Playstation 2 cutscene than a set piece of the genre at its best.
Luckily, there are still directors making the classic action films of old, such as S. Craig Zahler, who released his third film, “Dragged Across Concrete,” on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago.
The film follows two cops, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who have been suspended for racist police abuse. They respond by going against the law, robbing bank robbers in order to provide for the needs of their respective families.
Critics have drummed up controversy around certain aspects of the film, with some likening it to right-wing propaganda. Choosing racist cops as protagonists, as well as casting Vaughn and Gibson, two of Hollywood’s most conservative figures, has generated a fair degree of backlash. However, when looking at the film more closely, the conservative propaganda turns into a subtle and realistic satire of police violence that hides behind a well-made action film.
The reading of the film as satire draws from Zahler’s unflinching objectivity when he paints his two leads. For the majority of the film, the action heroes are not gunslinging cops, but rather aging, bitter white men complaining about a world that passed them by.
Shootouts, during which the audience would normally root for their heroes, are replaced by racist and vile conversations, meant to mimic and mock possible conversations between racist policemen in real life.
The majority of the film consists of slow burn character studies, which serve the film’s reading as satire, and also allow the brief spurts of action to feel deeply satisfying. Most of the film’s two and a half hour runtime builds up to the final action scene, and when that slow burn finally ends in the last 30 minutes, we are treated to one of the best action sequences of the last few years.
The action’s greatness comes not only from the fact that that the pacing of the film makes it feel earned, but also from Zahler’s camera staying stagnant, which puts the viewer inside the scene.
Zahler’s direction of action is masterful, and his use of exclusively practical effects for the film’s brutal gore grounds the cartoonish violence and makes each gunshot feel meaningful.
The film’s climactic action sequence begins with a seemingly unrelated vignette — a stroke of genius by Zahler that will likely be copied by big-budget action movies in the next few years.
However, there are major flaws within the film. As successful as the pacing is, the slow burn effect might be a little too slow. In fact, the film feels like a rough cut in many ways. The runtime could easily be cut by 30 minutes, as much of the dialogue feels like it belongs in the first draft. The decision to become a morality tale in the last five minutes also feels undeserved. These minor flaws, however, brush over the biggest, Mel-Gibson-sized elephant in the room.
Gibson is an almost comically bad person, who seems to only get worse with age. From his 2006 anti-Semitic remarks to his awful abuse of his now ex-wife, Gibson has proved to us that he is an actor we are better off saying goodbye to. While Zahler is no doubt aware of this (and it could even be safe to assume that Gibson’s real life persona is key to his character’s satire), it doesn’t remove the gross feeling the audience gets from seeing Gibson on screen again.
“Dragged Across Concrete” is a complicated, messy, challenging but ultimately worthwhile film. It hides its card close to its chest and makes the audience do the heavy lifting when it comes to perceiving potential meanings of the film. Its greatest strength lies in the ingenious simplicity of its action, but in order to enjoy the action, the audience must deal with its moral complications.
Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is TSL’s film columnist. He is a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.