If you’re out to criticize “Dragged Across Concrete,” the latest supersized exploitation opus from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, on charges of gratuitously provocative violence, misogyny, racial discourse or the mere presence of right-wing firebrand Mel Gibson in the lead, know that the film issues a preemptive retaliation in its own script. “I don’t politick and I don’t change with the times,” spits Gibson’s bent, brusque cop Ridgeman, after being disciplined for using excessive force on a perp. “And it turns out that sh-t’s more important than good, honest work.” Thirty years on from the bad-cop hijinks of “Lethal Weapon,” Gibson’s now the one who’s too old for said sh-t, though Ridgeman and Murtaugh, Danny Glover’s weary detective from that 1987 smash, would probably define the grind of their job very differently.
Zahler’s film places a lot of these wink-wink reactionary assertions in the mouths of Gibson and Vince Vaughn — noted Hollywood conservatives both, of course — as old-school policemen who run topically afoul of a crackdown on brutality in the force, with personally ruinous consequences. As in his last feature, the pummeling, Vaughn-starring “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” it’s for viewers to determine whether “Dragged Across Concrete” is complicit in such politics or taking a more ambivalently observational stance: Does it heroize its flawed white male characters for their flawed white maleness, or admonish them via the grimy downward spiral of their narrative?
Either way, as is now Zahler’s custom three features into a distinctive oeuvre, we get ample time to ponder these ambiguities. At a whopping 158 minutes, “Concrete’s” sleek, languorous anatomy of a heist represents the filmmaker’s most extreme exercise yet in painstaking genre deceleration, sparked as ever by the tangy movie-movie vernacular of his writing, the crunchy metal-on-asphalt dynamism of his craftsmanship, and the back-from-the-brink reanimation of his stars.
In this case, that chiefly applies to Gibson. Sporting an ashy brush cut and a roadkill mustache, he rewards Zahler’s trust with his most calmly committed performance since well before the downfall era, even as the script seemingly plays on the most controversial aspects of the star’s latter-day public persona. When Ridgeman manhandles the nude Latina girlfriend of a suspect to extract information, pushing her under a cold shower and jeering at her ethnicity, it’s a wince-inducing spectacle of art imitating tabloid life. His younger partner Lurasetti (Vaughn) is the more temperate and ethically conscious of the two, and even he’s a crude, heedless racist — though he dimly insists that ordering “a cup of dark roast every Martin Luther King Day” proves otherwise.
Developed in parallel with, if a little less generously than, the cops’ story is that of African-American career criminal Henry (a laconic, charismatic Tory Kittles), who has no sooner been released from a lengthy prison spell than he’s roped into another underworld job by his childhood pal Biscuit (Michael Jai White). (Zahler positively revels in such clichés of crime-film plotting, the basic hubs around which his less orthodox genre mechanics spin.) Together, the men agree to serve as getaway drivers for a large-scale bank robbery masterminded by the ruthless Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), with the agreement that no one will get killed unless in self-defense. That’s the falsest of pinky swears in an S. Craig Zahler film, where blasted body parts and grand jet-sprays of cherry-cola blood are very much part of the deal.
Unluckily for them — well, for all involved parties, really — it’s the same heist that Ridgeman decides to intercept (following a tipoff from a ripe Udo Kier) after he and Lusaretti are both suspended from duty for violent arrest tactics. Law-keeping is not the objective this time, however; fearing his job may be lost forever, and under pressure from his MS-stricken ex-force wife (Laurie Holden) to move to a safer, more affluent neighborhood, the disgraced cop is simply after the money. Initially reluctant but likewise motivated by financial strain, Lusaretti hops along for the ride. And a slow ride it is for what, by heist-movie standards, remains a pretty straightforward scheme: Zahler is less concerned with knotty complications and double- or triple-crossings than he is with simply getting a firm grip on the people involved.
Indeed, the most absorbing sections of “Dragged Across Concrete” are actually its most serenely conversational, as his characters shoot the blue-aired breeze while on stakeouts that stretch languidly across days, or while tailing vehicles in virtual real time on the interstate highway. In these stretches, the film is fat with the sharpest, seamiest stylistic pleasures of Zahler’s filmmaking, from the mustardy midnight haze of Benji Bakshi’s widescreen lensing to a terrific original song score that improbably matches Zahler’s high-kitsch lyrics to the creamy harmonies of revived soul collective The O’Jays.
Best of all, Zahler’s dialogue is pithy and rhythmic as ever, packed with irresistibly heightened turns of phrase that, at their peak (“It’s bad for you, it’s bad for me, it’s bad like lasagne in a can”) sound like the product of caffeinated all-night writer’s-room sessions between Quentin Tarantino and Dr. Seuss. The sheer fizz of that idiom propels “Concrete” past a lot of distasteful indulgence, but it still doesn’t quite justify lavishing this outsize runtime on such quick-and-dirty potboiler material. Certain digressions — notably a lengthy domestic interlude on Jennifer Carpenter’s bank employee, a new mother loath to return to work on what proves to be very much the wrong day for it — wind up playing as taunting shaggy-dog tales; women get particularly short shrift here, often cruelly dispatched for getting in the middle of the boys’ risky business.
Zahler’s script has an inbuilt response to those misgivings, too, as its police meatheads rail repeatedly against liberal values they perceive as oppressive: “People react to every perceived intolerance with complete and utter intolerance,” Ridgeman fumes between racist rants, before his superior (a sighing, grizzled Don Johnson) cautions him against losing “perspective and compassion.” Is the film on the boss’s side, or in tacit, dog-whistling sync with the cop’s lament? Egged on by that sly, close-to-the-bone casting, the film’s self-reflexivity tips too far at points into self-regard. Its sympathies, however, just about hang in the balance, as the upper hand keeps shifting among this sordid convention of losers.