There’s a phrase on social media called “milkshake duck” or “milkshake ducking” that’s inspired by a sort-of famous Tweet that originally referred to those moments when some cool new person, artist or creation you just became a fan of turns out to be “problematic” very soon after. At this point, it tends to mean the sense that it hasn’t happened yet but is probably going to — “She’s funny! I hope she’s not a milkshake duck” or “I like this band’s sound, but some of the lyrics feel like they’re one or two albums away from milkshake ducking it, and it’s gonna bum me out.”
Indie movie writer-director S. Craig Zahler, late of Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 and the screenplay for the reboot of Puppet Master, is currently the number one with a bullet ”milkshake duck” of the grindhouse movie circuit. An undeniably talented auteur filmmaker with all the right pre-Millennial film geek influences and genre bonafides — at least when he’s also directing his own stuff since Puppet Master was terrible — he tends to hit the nexus of near-pornographic ultraviolence, swaggering macho bravado, intelligently textured dialogue, and smart, deliberative pacing that’s catnip to hip cinephiles. He makes Bill Lustig movies, but directs them like William Wellman movies.
What’s put an extra edge on his work is that he likes to traffic in subject matter, imagery, topics, and sometimes actors and collaborators that most present-day filmmakers tend to bend over backwards to clarify that they’re not endorsing such as police violence, racism, extreme right-wing nationalism, demonization of minorities, and brutal misogyny. But Zahler seemingly isn’t in a hurry to reassure anyone about where he stands on anything.
His Western, his prison movie, his revisionist take on the Nazi black magic aspect of the Puppet Master franchise, and now his “bad cop” movie all dive headlong into the most (if you’ll pardon the obnoxious, tiresome phrasing) politically incorrect button-pushing regions of their subject matter with a boldness that can be exhilirating but also disquieting. It’s like if a friend showed you some unspeakable image from the depths of the web on their phone and you found yourself nervously laughing. ”Ha ha. Yeah that’s … pretty nasty. Um … why do you have that?”
It’s kind of a letdown to see Zahler seemingly sand off his own edges.
Those who’ve already decided that Zahler must be a not-so-closeted reactionary (or at the very least a gifted troll unconcerned with playing the part to risible effect) certainly won’t be dissuaded by the presence of Mel Gibson and returning Brawl in Cell Block 99 star Vince Vaughn as the leads of Dragged Across Concrete. Zahler provocatively casts those actors as a pair of grumpy, racist misfit cops who plan a heist while on a six-week unpaid suspension for the excessive beating of a suspect. They agree the beating was excessive, but also don’t think was a big deal. “I’m not racist,” Vaughn deapans to his exasperated captain and his partner’s former partner. “Every Martin Luther King Day, I order a cup of dark roast.”
Parallel storylines follow Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White (refreshingly cast for his acting rather than his fighting skills) as drivers hired by the heavily-armed masked psychopaths pulling off the heist, who Gibson and Vaughn plan to rob in turn. Both leads have slow-burning subplots. Gibson’s multiple sclerosis-afflicted wife worries that she’s “turning into a racist” because she’s concerned about her daughter being bullied in their mostly black low-income neighborhood. We also follow Vaughn’s attempt to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend, which is complicated for similar reasons. It’s a Zahler movie so it also runs almost three hours with threads taking their sweet time playing out before colliding in a brutal, nihilistically violent payoff.
Dragged Across Concrete can be viewed as a conscious move away from the genre thrills of Zahler’s previous two films and into something more like a formal drama punctuated by moments of signature extreme violence and unnerving “this feels too real” nastiness. It’s a solid crime film that makes a nice showcase for Zahler’s florid dialogue and penchant for leisurely long takes and jarring bloodshed. But it also feels at times like limitations are setting in. It’s probably the least engaging of his films, a reminder that even if expanding lurid exploitation-style cop movies to epic length is an interesting concept, there’s a reason most of them get paired down to run as quickly as possible.
There’s been a lot of critical hand-wringing about whether Zahler is or isn’t the first filmmaker with a reactionary and/or right-of-center sociopolitical skew since John Milius to actually make good movies. Despite the unavoidably controversial presence of the equally repellant yet talented Mel Gibson — who is about good here as he’s been in anything — this is also the first time I’ve felt like the director has pulled his punches. We are shown enough of the cops just being grouchy and beaten-down by life to get where they’re meant to be coming from. When we see what’s going on with Gibson’s daughter, she’s catching schoolyard bullying and not much else. The two wheelmen are extremely sympathetic and thoughtful, and the actual robbers might as well be Jason Vorheeses with machine guns.
For all the nastiness around everything, it sort of comes off like a cop out. If you’re going to ask us to wallow in this “There are no good guys, everyone’s just some variation of a bastard!” muck for three hours fine, but let them be bastards. Own up to that perspective and let it ride. For a movie pitched as the breakout for the most dangerous filmmaker on the indie scene, it’s kind of a letdown to see Zahler seemingly sand off his own edges and hand in something more like an extra long, very talky, much more handsome looking episode of Chicago P.D.