Starring Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter and Don Johnson. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler.

There exists a depressingly fashionable line of critical thought dictating that art should be aspirational, appealing to our better selves with empowering portrayals of protagonists who share our values and vocally reject all that is distasteful, unpleasant or otherwise hashtag problematic. This age-old “depiction vs. endorsement” bugbear remains an exhausting continued argument on social media, where 280-character limitations hardly allow room for nuance and most people are only there in the first place because they’re looking for something to get pissed off about.

They’ll find plenty of fodder in Dragged Across Concrete, a deliciously rotten and at times obnoxiously deliberate provocation from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, starring Woketown pariahs Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as Detectives Ridgeman and Lurasetti, two dickhead cops in the fictional urban sprawl of Bulwark, which I suppose could be near Chicago but looks suspiciously like New Jersey. Suspended for six weeks without pay after a neighbor with a cameraphone catches them roughing up a suspect, our two financially-strapped public servants decide they “have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.”

Notably, most of the pre-release pearl-clutching over this film has neglected to mention its third lead, Henry Johns — an African-American ex-con played by Tory Kittles who returns home from prison to find his junkie mother turning tricks while his wheelchair-bound kid brother is locked in the closet. Taking desperate measures to get his family out of this dire situation, Henry’s someone The New York Times would make sure to remind us “is no angel,” but he’s also the closest thing to a conscience in this movie’s ugly, amoral universe.

It’d probably take half-a-day for me to explain exactly how these three wind up triangulating against a gang of floridly sadistic, begoggled Eurotrash bank robbers, and it takes almost as long for the movie to get there as well. At two-and-three-quarter hours, Dragged Across Concrete is the slowest yet of Zahler’s slow-burn splatter-fests, but there’s scarcely a scuzz-bucket minute of it I’d trade for the world. As a mass consumer of yellowed, dog-eared paperbacks, I’m a sucker for this sort of rancid crime thriller in which compromised characters meet ignominious ends. An oft-neglected component of the cinematic experience is that sometimes it feels really good to watch people being bad.

Gibson gives his best performance in at least two decades, clamping down all his twitchy, manic energy into a compressed stillness until he’s nothing but a slab of furrowed glower and those ice blue eyes. Squat, with a thick mustache, thinning hair and oversized old-man ears, Mad Mel looks as if he’s just strolled in from some late-period Peckinpah movie like The Killer Elite stinking of cigarettes and Scotch. Ridgeman’s former partner and current captain (Don Johnson!) warns that he’s “losing compassion and perspective,” which is something we could tell just by looking at him.

His blunt fireplug makes a fantastic foil for Vaughn’s long-limbed motormouth, and since a big chunk of Dragged Across Concrete consists of these two cops-turned-robbers sitting around on a long-ass stakeout, their antagonistic banter is enormously entertaining even when Zahler gets a bit too cute with the microaggressions. (Though it should be noted that these guys are practically altar boys compared to 1970s movie cops like Popeye Doyle or Freebie and the Bean.) Perhaps most importantly, the actors are able to carry off some of the more self-consciously stylized dialogue flourishes, such as Vaughn constantly muttering the word “anchovies” in lieu of profanity.

Anyone who’s seen this director’s “Deadwood goes to the grindhouse” cannibal western Bone Tomahawk or his eerie, artsploitation prison picture Brawl In Cell Block 99 will already be acquainted with the filmmaker’s shall-we-say, *idiosyncratic* idea of pacing, in which a static camera quietly regards scenes that go on for so long they’re like the dramatic equivalent of a joke that isn’t funny until you repeat it so many times it becomes the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.

The way Zahler lingers for eons on inessential details and discussions most other directors wouldn’t bother filming in the first place is a form of durational rope-a-dope, lulling you into a complacency that’s inevitably shattered by his sudden blasts of “Jesus Christ, did I just fucking see that?” carnage. Dragged Across Concrete can be quite hideously cruel, going well out of its way to stop and make you care about people who will abruptly buy it in the most gasp-inducingly ghastly of fashions. Never once in the movie does any character feel safe or otherwise off-limits.

I understand that this sort of thing is decidedly not for everybody, and am sympathetic to those who just don’t feel like watching Mel Gibson at all anymore. (I have complicated feelings on this matter: riveted by his snarling performances in rotgut thrillers like this one and the underrated Blood Father while revolted by the sight of him yukking it up in a family-friendly studio comedy like Daddy’s Home 2. I guess I just need the guy to take ownership of his toxicity on camera.)

Gibson is so compelling in Dragged Across Concrete that many viewers who should know better seem to have confused the film’s POV with the character’s hollow justifications and aggrieved self-pity — a conclusion made perhaps easier than it should be by the movie’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” bits of bad-boy trolling.

There’s been a ton of virtual ink spilled as of late speculating on Zahler’s personal politics, most unfortunately when a thoughtful interview with the director conducted by my astute colleague Nick Schager was slapped by The Daily Beast with the idiotic clickbait headline: “The Hollywood Filmmaker Making Movies For The MAGA Crowd.”

For obvious reasons I can’t imagine many MAGA choads warming to a character like Henry Johns, who comes into his own during the film’s consistently surprising third act with what should be a star-making performance by Kittles. He’s there to throw the self-righteous, bullshit rationalizations of Ridgeman and Lurasetti into sharp relief, admirably holding the screen against Gibson and Vaughn while upending our underestimations.

In retrospect, Zahler already tipped his hand about an hour-and-a-half earlier when we see Ridgeman and his family curled up on the couch watching a nature show about cuddly lion cubs. It’s a pointed contrast to Henry and his kid brother, who bond by playing a big game safari hunter videogame in which they blast all the predators to hell with shotguns. Because that’s how you survive in the jungle.

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