Mel Gibson was “canceled” in Hollywood before “canceled” was really a thing that could be done to a person instead of a TV show, but in a weird way, his shunning was (for lack of a better phrase) well-timed, beyond even the apparent breaking point of his drunken violence, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. Gibson didn’t really fall from grace until the mid-2000s, saving him the trouble of adapting to a re-aligned movie-star economy. His ‘90s peers in superstardom dealt with it in different ways: Julia Roberts stepped back, Tom Cruise tried to push forward like nothing had changed, and Tom Hanks made a graceful transition to late-middle-aged muse-following (give or take a terrible Dan Brown adaptation or three). Gibson seemed to be pivoting to directing when he made the torturous megahit The Passion of the Christ and the less mega (but also less tedious, honestly probably career-beest) Apocalypto, but after his star fell, he seemed keen on pivoting back into movie-star pulp and/or image maintenance. Audiences mostly stayed away, except for his recent part in the recent Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg sequel Daddy’s Home 2.
Why am I even talking about Mel Gibson? He’s in another new movie, and even more vexing, it’s a pretty good one: S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete, a 160-minute crime picture. Anyone whose interest in watching Gibson onscreen is understandably low will probably not feel revitalized by the opportunity to see him play a wearily racist cop who’s been suspended for rough and cruel treatment of a couple of suspects (nonwhite, natch). Ridgeman (Gibson), desperate to make some money while he’s on six weeks of unpaid suspension, desperate also to move his MS-stricken wife and bullied daughter out of a bad neighborhood, starts skulking around in search of an extra-legal solution: Specifically, he plans to case a robbery, rip off the robbers, and help himself to an enhanced retirement fund. He wheedles his younger, similarly racist but more generously fused partner Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) into helping him, even while insisting that Lurasetti should only jump on if he could use the extra money, too. (Ridgeman knows he could.)
The furloughed cops’ story is intercut with a chronicle of ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), whose similar is not so different from Ridgeman’s: He wants to help his mom out of addiction and provide for his wheelchair-bound younger brother. It turns out, of course, that the getaway-driving job that Henry’s buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White) finds for him will intersect with the cops. Nothing about Zahler’s storyline is especially twisty; indeed, some of it is doomy with inevitability. Zahler, who previously directed Vaughn in the similarly protracted Brawl in Cell Block 99, likes his static-shot scenes to extend beyond the all-business boilerplate of typical crime thrillers. His characters talk at length, going over their plans and also going off on modest, unshowy tangents. His writing has been compared to Tarantino, but it’s specifically akin to later-period Tarantino, more of the wry, considered loquaciousness and less pop-culture riffing.
Zahler has also been tagged as a reactionary, both for his button-pushing (the heroes are unapologetically middle-aged white guys making racist jokes) and for his willingness to work with both Gibson and Vaughn, themselves seemingly kindred spirits, based on Gibson’s casting of Vaughn in his last directorial effort, Hacksaw Ridge, perhaps bonded by their uncharacteristic-for-Hollywood conservative streaks. Depiction, of course, is not endorsement, and it’s worth noting that (a.) one of the most sympathetic characters in Concrete is Henry, who is black, (b.) the most unequivocally scary and unredeemable bad guys of the picture are faceless white dudes, and (c.) the movie does not particularly glorify the cops’ behavior given the turns taken by the plot.
But it’s also hard to buy that Zahler is “just” depicting racism when his characters speak so eloquently to justify it, not just express it. The same succinctly heightened dialogue that enlivens the movie’s slow-burning stakeout scenes (“a single red ant could’ve eaten it faster,” Ridgeman grouses about Lurasetti’s consumption of an egg-salad sandwich) is used to give voice to the cops’ complaints about political correctness, phrased and delivered as wry wisdom, of a sort. Even when the partners’ boss (Don Johnson) admonishes Ridgeman for his eroded empathy, he allows that yes, being called racist is basically as unfair and damning as actual racism. For all the conflict in the movie, not a single character reacts negatively to these bromides (and they’re also incredibly, uncharacteristically cheesy in a way that Zahler’s more direct depictions of racism are not—in the way, in fact, that “thoughtful” conservative actors are apt to sound when spouting off about how oppressed they are).
These concerns fall away from both the movie and the characters as they get deeper into the nasty, often bloody specifics of a bank heist gone very wrong. Zahler even pauses the action further to give one bystander (Jennifer Carpenter) a vignette of her own, a side story that makes the tension that’s already begun to build nearly unbearable. The second half of Dragged Across Concrete’s epic running time is a remarkable achievement in sustained suspense without resorting to cheap shortcuts—indeed, while actively rejecting shortcuts of any kind.
This also means you’re stuck watching Gibson; he and Vaugh have significantly more screentime than Kittles. But if you can stomach Mad Mel in 2019, his grimaces as a hard-bitten asshole cop are, as it turns out, a lot more palatable than the selling of Gibson as an effortlessly cool old grump in Daddy’s Home 2. That movie tried to make Gibson’s sourness his comic attitude, and it was an exchange of mutual failures: The screenplay offered zero good lines, and Gibson offered no kind of comic delivery, just a self-regarding eye-rolling designed to make unfunny old fucks in the audience mirthlessly chuckle along with his disdain, rather than actually going for a laugh. It was reminiscent, in fact, of bad later-period Vince Vaughn movies like Couples Retreat or Delivery Man, where he comes across vaguely hostile to the idea of even trying to be funny.
Gibson makes no more attempt to charm in Concrete, but the movie doesn’t ask him to, and he’s an effective deadpan minimalist—and so is Vaughn, though that was already re-established by his laconic turn in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Concrete feels a touch less enamored of itself than that impressive but exhausting gorefest. It’s also a lot more palatable than Gibson’s attempts at wild-card maximalism in the low-rent likes of Machete Kills or Expendables 3, which seemed to take to Gibson’s disturbing rep with cutesy, manic winks, even as his actual performances were pretty rote. Zahler must be equally aware of Gibson’s history and the effects it might have on ginger audience members, but despite his obvious affection for his characters, he doesn’t work overtime to make this guy lovable again. Those days—of Mel as the manic crowdpleaser, running the show and torturing himself for his own glory—are long gone. Whatever winking games Zahler is playing with ideology, he seems to understand this immutable fact better than anyone Gibson has worked with in the past decade or more. As tense and sometimes unpleasant as Dragged Across Concrete can be, that aspect of it feels like a strange kind of a relief.