Dragged Across Concrete is only going to get a third of a review and I’ll tell you why.
To be upfront, this began as a review. As I wrote, it turned into an essay on the importance of having likeable protagonists.
That’s what this post is in a nutshell. You can stop reading if you want.
Are they gone?
Cool, for those of you still reading, thanks.
This gets technical in places. If you’re a writer, you’ll find this post helpful. If you are more of a consumer, then this will help you understand. It’ll help you know what you like about specific stories while others leave you cold.
This post might also help you in your day to day life of trying to win people over to your side. How many times have you told someone you’re close to about another person being a dick? You finish the tale only for the listener to remain silent?
They don’t speak because they love you and can’t bring themselves to tell you that you are the dick. In the story that you told, you didn’t come across as likeable.
At the other end of the spectrum, you probably have that friend who gets away with murder.
You know why that is?
There is a man in our circle of friends, nickname is Curly. I have seen him turn the most miserly misery guts into giggling school girls.
You know why.
How is Curly likeable? Without going too in-depth a few examples. Boundless energy, a smile always on his face and makes you feel heard. Most important, he doesn’t let anything external affect his perpetually sunny disposition.
All that I have mentioned = likability.
Likability is so important, but it is something that you can take for granted.
The filmmakers behind Dragged Across Concrete sure did.
A little context first.
Back at the house:
“How is Avengers doing?”
“On opening night we sold out all 12 of our screens”
“How the hell are they so popular?”
“No idea. It’s not for me, and I don’t get it. There’s a film for the lads that’s out now. Dragged Across Concrete”
“Never heard of it. What’s it about?”
“Has Mad Mel Gibson as a cop who gets caught out being a bit racist. Might be good”
“What could go wrong?”
Dragged Across Concrete
Turns out quite a bit actually. Let me summarise what happens. It starts with some lad belting it into a prozzie. All good, bit of boobs bit o’ bucking. You find out that he’s recently got out of prison. He goes home to his house. His mum has been turning tricks since his incarceration. The lad is nay happy about that even though he was making use of the facilities in the previous scene. Anyway, this goes on for a while, and I am sure that it will all become clear why this scene went on so long.
I am sure.
Next scene, finally gets to see Mad Mel sitting on a fire escape watching a window with a gun in his hand. This is going to be a bust of some kind.
The last scene didn’t have any action I’m sure this will give us a bit of gunplay. I am sure.
The film keeps cutting to a close up of a cigarette on a railing. Mel keeps looking at it. Wonder how they are going to pay off this setup? They will pay this off. I am sure.
Someone is coming up the fire escape. Ah right I see, the cigarette will fall and tip of the criminal, and it’ll lead to a foot chase. Mel will get winded and say that he’s too old for this. Yuck, yuck yuck.
Ok, Mel isn’t too worried about whoever is coming up the stairs it must be a friend. Right, so the cigarette falls. It lands on the person coming up, they let out a yelp, spooks the guy in the apartment, shoot out. Cool.
The cigarette falls and…
Glad we spent all that time setting up the cigarette on the railing. Totes worth the time.
Now Mel and partner Vince Vaughn are getting suspended. They are on video roughing up a suspect. Vince Vaugh keeps saying “Anchovies”. Mel is being told that he’s not going to get promoted. Was he up for promotion? Was that established?
Now here’s Mel’s wife complaining that she’s becoming racist. Is Mel’s character racist? Did I miss something?
Here’s another new character, a guy in a shady flat. Is this anything to do with the guy who got out of prison.
Now there’s a guy with a mask on killing people at random. Is he the villain? What happened to the guy who got out of prison?
There’s Udo Kier.
More new characters.
There’s a lot of elements being set up, and there have been no payoffs, not even a hint. If I were emotionally invested, I would stick around to find out. Are they going to pay it off? I’m not sure.
We’re now an hour in and we’re introducing Vaughn’s fiancee who is a black woman. So he’s not racist? That feels like relevant information we should have known about sooner.
That’s when I walked out.
Do you see what I’m trying to get at?
You’re probably thinking, “Kieran, you just don’t GET slow films”.
First of all, how dare you, close this tab at once.
I love Tarkovsky films.
Even the scene in Blade Runner 2049 where he finds the wooden horse is paced alright.
Second, I object to the label of “slow” film.
A film either has good pacing, or it does not. The length of a movie is immaterial dependent on the pacing. Gone Girl is 2 hours 30 minutes, you don’t feel it. The Canyons is 1 hour 25 minutes. You feel every second of it twice.
Dragged Across Concrete had no pace, no rhythm.
Every scene was long takes. Static camera, with characters sitting talking to each other. I’ve seen reviews where they say it’s like a filmed play. That is damning it with the faintest of praise.
There have been filmed plays with way more cinematic panache *cough* Doubt *cough*.
At least plays have the excuse of not being written for the screen. Dragged Across Concrete was specifically written for the screen.
Before I left there was a scene were Mel and Vince sit in a car. They have been suspended from the police force, and they are planning to rob a criminal. Mel makes the “I’m owed this” speech. It went on for some time. I leaned into my friends:
“What the fuck is this?”
“This is bollicks.”
“How much longer is this going to go on for?”
“I don’t know. Like has anything happened so far?”
“We’ve been here an hour”
“10 more minutes and we go”
“This, this is why Marvel films are so popular”.
We finished up our whispered pow-wow. Here’s the thing, the speech was still going on. Think about it. We talked amongst ourselves for a minute or two, and nothing had changed by the time we finished.
What’s worse is that a film such as this is 100% made for me. I am the intended recipient of this product. I love action/thrillers with a focus on character over plot. In fact, the more simple a plot, the more complicated you can make the characters.
Here are a couple of films that I have enjoyed over the past couple of years. Drive, Killing Them Softly, Jack Reacher, The Grey, Sicario, Nightcrawler. These are all modestly budgeted films that have a bit of action. There’s a bit of sleaze, ambiguous characters, some wisecracks and a moral dilemma. Best part? You’re out in under two hours.
That’s all I want. It’s all you need. Not rocket science.
The Nice Guys is a perfect movie for me. It is by no means a classic, but because of that, I have probably watched more than films that I consider better. There’s action, nudity and characters you remember. The humour is in such a way that you laugh at the jokes but forget them. When you rewatch you laugh at the jokes like they’re new.
Dragged Across Concrete should have been right up my alley but it wasn’t, and I know why.
Don’t know the best way to do it but let’s break it down into a little list.
What you’ll find is that the reason that Dragged Across Concrete didn’t work is a reason why many films don’t work.
As I list out the reasons that scene by scene this filmed burned up on reentry think to your own experiences. Experiences of films you’ve hated. Even general stories that didn’t connect with you.
You might not realise it right away, but I guarantee that your brain noticed.
1: Likeable Protagonists:
There are many films, especially post-millennium, that don’t bother with likeable protagonists. The filmmakers take our investment in the protagonists’ journey for granted.
A protagonist must be established as likeable from early on.
Look at some of the biggest movies throughout history, and they do it on some level.
Titanic Jack is a loveable rogue with boundless enthusiasm. He wins his ticket onto the ship fair and square.
Harry Potter: This is the Roald Dahl technique. Not necessarily making them likeable but getting us to like them through sympathy. Harry’s parents have been murdered, and he’s mistreated by his foster parents. The same thing with Avatar. Jake Sully is a wheelchair user taunted by the soldiers on the base. His brother also died in events right before the film.
Back to the Future: Marty is a rebellious teen who just wants to make music. Suffocated by the school system. So much so that even when given a chance to express himself in band auditions he is denied for being “Too loud”.
Ghostbusters. The first scene with Peter Venkman is him trying to impress a girl with a bogus experiment. While it may not be kosher to use your power like that we can relate to him. Venkman is bored, coasting and in short not fulfilling his potential. Much like many of us in the audience, speaking for myself.
Even look at the first Iron Man film. One of the first scenes with Tony Stark has him bantering with the troops. Your brain registers that while he’s super-rich, he’s still a man of the people. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty and go out into the field. An even better example is Captain America. Steve Rogers puny, underdeveloped faces down bullies. He gets his ass handed to him what does he do? He gets back up and says “I could do this all day”. Whether you like the films or you don’t (full disclosure, I don’t find them interesting), you cannot deny that this is a fantastic way to get the audience on the side of your protagonist.
I could go on, but you get the point.
*You know what I’m going to do a bonus section on anti-heroes, you can find it after the conclusion*
By comparison, the protagonists of Dragged Across Concrete do the following in their opening scenes:
Go rough on an unarmed man who you haven’t seen do anything “bad”.
Have a go at a colleague for his attention to detail.
Harass a deaf woman.
Does that sound like characteristics of people you want to invest in? If you say yes, you are lying and are deliberately being contrarian.
The worst thing is that this could have been fixed with one or two changes. The guy they go rough on could have reached for a gun or taken a swing. The deaf girl reaches for a gun. If she was able to reach it and take a shot at them, then it becomes more understandable when they’re mean with her.
2: Audience imprinting/ Introduce the hero as soon as possible
Audiences are ducklings. The first thing they see they see as mummy duck/protagonist.
You have to let us see the hero within the first couple of scenes. If you’re doing a murder mystery, then the opening scene is the murder, then the second scene we meet the heroes. James Bond movies tend to have a scene separate from the plot of the film. Same for Indiana Jones. There are many, many examples of films that do this. There are exceptions to this guideline of course. Sometimes you want to hype up the hero or other times if it’s a sci-fi/fantasy you have to do some worldbuilding first.
What does Dragged Across Concrete have?
An extended sequence with a released prisoner giving his mum a hard time. It goes on way too long, and the film didn’t come back to him in a meaningful way while I was there.
This too could have been fixed by reordering the scenes. If the filmmakers put “release from prison” scene after “cops suspended”, problem solved. It would have broken up the story for the audience. As it is, it just comes across as jarring.
3: Hit that first plot point before the 30-minute mark.
All bad films are similar in that they hit the first plot points way too late. How late? By about 10 minutes, believe me, it’s a recurring pattern. If you read my Canyons write up from last year, it hits the first plot point at the 40-minute mark. Think of a film that you found dull when did the plot kick in?
Even films that you think are good, are they?
Minority Report is a film that you might think is good, but there’s a reason why you haven’t rewatched it all that much. Tom Cruise doesn’t get accused until the 40-minute mark. It has extended scenes of characterisation and needless travel segments. I would ask how is it that the head of Pre-Crime can’t work in the building. If Tom Cruise character’s drug addiction doesn’t come back into play, what is the point in setting it up? These choices, Spielberg’s track record make me believe that Tom was calling the shots in the edit suite.
If you’re telling a story, you have to get the plot rolling before the 30 minutes/page mark.
To be pedantic borderline autistic about it ideally, it happens in the 20-30 minute range.
Look at great films.
When does Ilsa show up in Casablanca? When does uncle Charlie arrive in Shadow of a Doubt? Robocop gets powered on at what time?
If the audiences are looking at their phone, it may be easy to blame attention spans. The honest answer is that you failed to engage them. You took their attention for granted, and you frittered it away.
That’s what the filmmakers behind dragged across concrete did to me.
That’s why I walked out.
Dragged Across Concrete is frustrating because I wanted it to engage me. I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to join that list of middle-class films that I like.
It didn’t, and so it doesn’t.
The worst thing is that with a couple of changes and cutting out half of the runtime, it could have been great.
They could have even hired me through Fiverr at a bargain.
They could have made a film that may have been talked about in the same categories as Drive or Dredd. I mean it has the first two letters of those modern masterpieces. Whereas they are simple one-word titles, Dragged Across Concrete is three, go figure.
Hope you found this helpful.
Enjoy and have a great day.
BONUS ROUND: ANTI HEROES
Kieran, what about Anti-heroes, they aren’t likeable?
Are you sure about that?
Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name takes out a couple of dudes who laugh at his donkey. It’s a dangerous world, but they draw first.
Dirty Harry, his “Do I feel lucky” speech is given to an attempted bank robber. The gun is empty, Dirty Harry likes to fuck around with criminals heads before booking them, you like him. If he shot an unarmed wounded man, he would have crossed the line. Had he executed the robber Harry Calahan would have disappeared from public consciousness.
It’s even easy to see why films you like don’t do so well.
Take one of my favourite films from the last couple of years Blade Runner 2049. The first scene has Ryan Gosling break into Dave Bautista’s house. Dave appears to be living a quiet life, keeping himself to himself. Dave even offers Ryan some soup.
What does Ryan do to this farmer? Murders him in cold blood (is cold blood part of being a replicant?).
I love this film, but I understand entirely why it bombed.