Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Two detectives, Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are caught via phone camera for being too rough on a suspect. Six-week suspension, no pay. The former has an idea: To rob criminals planning to execute a bank heist. The latter is given a choice on whether to join his partner. He accepts, albeit reluctantly; money is needed in the likely event his girlfriend accepts his wedding proposal. Like strong thrillers told with clear vision and precision, “Dragged Across Concrete” offers a straightforward plot—and yet many may find it to be a challenge to sit through because of its formidable patience. Without the fat, it is barely a ninety-minute feature. And yet it has a total running time of two hours and forty minutes. In this rare case, fat provides flavor.
This is a story of people who are required to sacrifice something important in order to achieve what they want. Most of them will pay with their lives. It is quite grim in its vision of reality, but I found it to be honest, too. Our detectives are not pleasant people to be around. For instance, one of them is a proud racist. The other tolerates his partner’s… eccentricity. One feels he is owed by the city he has protected for doing “good and honest work” which supposedly justifies the corruption he is about to step into. The other knows he is smart and can do much better than to sit next to an increasingly bitter man who is twenty years his senior. Yet this man chooses to remain stagnant, coming up with one justification after another in order to delay what is right for his career.
These are interesting characters precisely because of their flaws. Exchanges between Gibson and Vaughn command electricity; they adapt a rhythm that feels cinematic without losing that roughness or jaggedness innate to independent films. Ridgeman and Lurasetti enable one another yet challenge each other in small ways, even in petty ways. Attempts at humor are present when it comes to their behavior, especially when both are confined in a small space—like how a sandwich is eaten. We spent ample time in their car, just waiting for something to happen. Those thirsty for action will likely get bored, but those who wish to understand these men will be curious of what they have to say or do next. I fall in the latter category.
Zahler’s daring screenplay shines not just during shockingly violent in-your-face moments. Although I must say there is a murder that occurs about halfway through that haunted me until well after the end credits. Notice the material is not afraid to put the rising action into a screeching halt in order to provide exposition regarding new characters, who may or may not be critically important during the final act, and reveal their motivations. Instead of giving us repetitive car chases and shootouts, we take a quick peek at their home lives: the state of their living space, who is important to them, and why they come to the conclusion that money will solve their current woes. But what good is money when you’re dead and you’re not there to share joy and laughter with loved ones? To these people, it is worth the risk.
Looking at the work as a whole, I think its goal is to censure systemic problems in our current society: racism, corruption, and the constant failure to hold cops responsible for their actions in a way that is healthy and therefore have positive effects long-term. The movie is a look at how punishment-driven we are: imprison criminals when they need rehabilitation, suspend cops without pay when what most of them really need is proper training not only as cops but also as enforcers of law who must learn to relate better with the diverse communities they serve. Finally, it condemns how we as a society have allowed those in power to put money on such a high pedestal that we are willing to die to attain it. That is why the violence must be framed in an extreme fashion. The film is angry and we should be, too. Yes, the movie entertains, but it also works as social commentary should viewers bother to look underneath the sclera.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director S. Craig Zahler has helmed yet another project so worthy of being seen due to its high entertainment value while telling a seemingly straightforward story of a six-foot-five former boxer (Vince Vaughn) recently laid off from his job as an auto-repairman who then makes the decision to become a drug runner in order to provide a better life for his wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Equipped with a wonderful ear for dialogue as it expertly employs pauses and extended silences to amp up the suspense, what results is a razor-sharp action-thriller that is certain to gain a cult following over the years.
I have never seen Vaughn deliver a performance in which he disappears into his character completely, not even in his prior dramatic roles. He plays a criminal named Bradley Thomas, but what makes the subject interesting is that he comes with a set of principles. And because we are given a chance to understand the reasons behind his actions, we become empathetic to his plight despite the fact that his business involves drugs. Bradley may come from the South, accent and all, and so it is easy to assume he is not intelligent, especially given the archetypes of action films. On the contrary, Bradley is smart, more than capable of thinking on his feet, and makes careful decisions when it really counts.
The skull-crunching, limb-bending, thumbs-pushed-inside-eye-sockets violence is ugly, beautiful, and satisfying. Those less experienced with watching extremely violent pictures are certain to flinch or look away for some seconds. The camera is not afraid to show how it is really like to break an arm or stomp on a head against a concrete floor. At times it goes for the gross close-up. Yet despite the level of brutality, it is beautiful because these moments are earned. We find satisfaction in them because the violence serves as catharsis rather than simply something that must occur for the sake of spraying blood or hearing screams of pain. In addition, from a technical standpoint, the fight scenes are impressive because they do not look stylized in any way. It adds to the gritty realism of the material.
The look of the picture commands attention because images are drenched in hues of dark blue. This is particularly effective during scenes between Bradley and his pregnant wife walking around their home after some financial success. Although it is supposed to be a happy time for them, we absorb the picture through a fog of blue. It creates a dead-cold feeling, creating a sense of foreboding that this story may not end the way we think. To establish excitement, a freshness, using such a color palette is impressive because such a strategy is often employed in thrillers by which filmmakers hope to put a filter between material and audience, occasionally a way to numb us from the experience. I enjoyed that Zahler is able to find a different way to use the technique.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” offers an unrelenting sensory experience. The main character speaks only when necessary and when he does express his thoughts, he has a habit of generalizing, not because he is incapable but because time is valuable. He is a walking curiosity and we care for him to stick around so we can learn more about him. And so when injustice is done to him and those he cares about, we demand that it be corrected with utmost urgency. I admired this work’s wild and uncompromising approach.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
An interesting hybrid of western and horror, “Bone Tomahawk” is a work that requires a whole lot of patience, a pinch of rumination, and a healthy dose appreciation for the small but calculated elements dispersed throughout its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. Those craving for a film that is willing and unafraid to take risks are likely to welcome what it offers.
Notice how it takes its time. It is almost an hour into the picture when the plot is finally propelled to the forward direction and so for a while it makes us wonder where the story is supposed to go. We are given possibilities. Because the picture is a western, we expect a typical clash between the Indians and the white men. Instead, the material consistently strives to deliver more than what is expected. In some ways, it reminded me of a classic literature—the manner in which writer-director S. Craig Zahler lays the foundation so meticulously that payoffs are highly likely to prove fruitful. (And they do.)
The plot involves a rescue mission spearheaded by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell). He is accompanied by a “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins), an educated man (Matthew Fox), a cripple (Patrick Wilson) whose wife is abducted. But the journey is not what the film is about. It is about the discovery of who these men are while facing their mortality. We learn of their pasts, their fears, their hopes, who they loved, and what they wish to accomplish once the rescue is over. Not all of them will see the end of the rescue.
The dialogue has color. Although a western and the words uttered are western-like, the attitude and the flavor of the various deliveries command a certain ironic-lite anachronism. Comedic exchanges tend to sprout out of nowhere and they are even bittersweet at times. It almost gives the impression that these men are aware, or have accepted the possibility, that they are walking toward certain death. Are they driven by revenge, honor, duty, curiosity? As the travelers push themselves to exhaustion, they open up, and eventually we are able to gauge their sense of morality and hypothesize what really made them choose to partake in this rescue mission. Perhaps they feel a need to rescue themselves.
Beautifully shot and well-acted, one can make a case that “Bone Tomahawk” is a case study of the male ego and what is expected of masculinity. Note that the women characters stay in the home, they are healers—even the female cave dwellers are blinded, crippled, their main function to get impregnated and deliver new life successfully. Most importantly, however, the film is an entertaining, highly watchable experiment that delivers potent thrills.