Skip to main content

We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.

Dragged Across Concrete
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Craig S Zahler’s response to controversy surrounding his – unstated, but people draw their own conclusions from his cumulative body of work – politics is to double down. He casts Mel Gibson as a good-guy-really racist cop and has his characters, sometimes with extreme lack of finesse, espouse his own thoughts on having a freedom to traverse such rocky terrain. You might argue he’s trolling his audience, and you’d have some degree of justification there. Dragged Across Concrete shows once again that he’s a very talented filmmaker – if over-indulgent and offputtingly exploitation cinema-indebted – but it becomes increasingly difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt in the scenarios he sets up.

One might suggest his decision to include an African-American protagonist (albeit clearly secondary to stars Gibson and Vince Vaughn) is an attempt to defuse accusations lobbed his way – the same with the African-American girlfriend of Vaughn’s racial epithet using cop – or one might see it as further stoking the fire and fanning the flames (Tory Kittles’ Henry Johns is, after all, an ex-con who ends the film in the lap of luxury, profiting from multiple murders of innocents).

I’ve certainly tended to avoid jumping to conclusions with regard to Zahler’s motives, noting that he’s clearly intending to provoke but accepting that the exploration of characters and viewpoints, even when those viewpoints suggest a running theme, don’t necessarily amount to an authorial perspective (or cumulatively, a “vile, racist right-wing fantasy”). That said, it’s somewhat disingenuous of him to claim he isn’t political, as he’s evidently much too smart not to know what he’s flirting with, particularly in his last two movies (I haven’t seen the Puppet Master instalment he wrote, but enough people have cited it as a sealing the deal on his views, that it would suggest, as a Jewish filmmaker, he really is a troll supreme).

Certainly, when Laurie Holden (as Gibson’s MS-suffering wife) comments “You know, I never thought I was racist before living in this area” and their teenage daughter (Jordan Ashley Olsen) experiences continued harassment from black kids, Zahler’s pushing very clear buttons; the question becomes, to what end? The same with Vaughn, and the aforementioned racist innuendo during a meeting with Don Johnson’s police chief.

And even if you’re crediting Zahler with nuance, it’s impossible not to get a mixed message from Mel being suspended for using undue force on a Hispanic suspect (he was filmed) and the subsequent speechifying whereby being “branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being accused of communism in the 50s” and “There’s certainly nothing hypocritical about the media handling every perceived intolerance with complete and utter intolerance”. That sounds like Zahler responding to his critics, rather than following where his characters take him.

He’s also very deliberately loading his dice, sympathy wise – Gibson and Vaughn aren’t bent cops by nature, as Kittles assumes when their paths eventually cross; they’re “forced” into it by circumstances (now, you might argue that, if Gibson hadn’t been excessive in the first place, none of this would have happened, and again, you’d be crediting Zahler with allowing his characters to chart their courses in non-judgemental ways). We spend more time with Gibson and Vaughn on stakeout than anyone else, so of course we’re supposed to get to know and like them, but again, that may be Zahler’s intent in asking his audience whether they want to reach broad conclusions. Notably, he doesn’t ask us to get to know Thomas Kretschmann and his duo of masked assassins, who are more expressly and overtly racist and sociopathic.

Zahler more than takes his time with the picture, unnecessarily so, I think, as ultimately one doesn’t feel it needed such an extended canvas, but he’s also remarkably confident and assured in his telling, a master of the slow-burn narrative; the tension sustained during the final confrontation between cops and robbers is almost unbearable, and you can’t really argue with his decision to include regular Jennifer Carpenter in a vignette as a new mother who can’t bear to be apart from her new born and must go back to work when it’s so affecting (again, her speechifying about staying at home is somewhat ungainly, and might be construed as deeply conservative in design). On the other hand, I’ve never had much time for Zahler’s gore-hound instincts – they’re as much of a red flag as his being a metal-head, unfair of me as that may be – and I tend to the view that such indulgences do the subplot a disservice, since the main takeaway from Carpenter’s appearance is the shlock of her fingers and then head being blown off.

The cast are all top notch. Vaughn’s very much doing his laidback Vaughn thing, while Mel (in only his second cop role since Martin Riggs, I think) brings the expected intensity to bear. Kittles is contrastingly a model of measured restraint (witness his scene calming down nervy partner Michael Jai White), less showy than his more famous co-stars but leaving a more lasting impression. As a piece of filmmaking and as a crime thriller, Dragged Across Concrete is an impressive piece of work. Whatever Zahler is saying with it may at times be less so, and I may end up with hindsight wish I hadn’t been so generous with not leaping to assumptions in that regard. But then, I said much the same thing about Brawl in Cell Block 11.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.