There’s a large section of the worldwide film-going audience who have no idea that S Craig Zahler exists. Bone Tomahawk, Riot in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete all made an impact on critics and cult movie fans alike, but that mainstream breakthrough has proved elusive. But it will come; if you know anyone who claims to be bored with CGI, feels that modern films are not tough or realistic, and yearns for the days of Sam Peckinpah or Don Siegel, then advise them to buckle up, because S. Craig Zahler is going to be right up their alley. Dragged Across Concrete is a heist-gone-wrong movie that should leave viewers feeling as if they’ve been dragged across concrete; that 159 minute run-time is gruelling, but also exhilarating. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are two cops who get suspended by boss Lt Calvert (Don Johnson) for police brutality. Ridgeman (Gibson) has financial difficulties, and an armoured car robbery is mooted as one way out of the hole. Meanwhile Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) exits the slammer to find a changed world; unwisely, he signs up to be part of Ridgeman’s crew. Although Dragged Across Concrete is deliberately slow, it locates most of the drama within the action of the heist itself, making the action absorbing and frequently painful to watch; Zahler is clearly fascinated by violence, but he’s alert to the moral decay around it, and links each character in a series of death-grips that extend to the final scene. Udo Kier, Thomas Kretschmann and Fred Melamed contribute some short but telling cameos, and the whole vibe has a bleak, early 70’s vibe. Dragged Across Concrete is a tough, nasty crime-story, a jet-black shot of urban mayhem that should thrill even the most jaded thrill-seeker.
Steve McQueen has something of a reputation as a pretentious film-school type, but Widows is easily his best film, mainly because it’s the first time he’s attempted to tell a story in an entertaining rather than a tortuous way. Here, McQueen dusts off the old 1983 ITV Linda La Plante crime series, adapted by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, and it’s a slow-burning heist film with some political aspirations. Three widows of hardened thieves join forced when their husbands are killed during a robbery. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debricki. Various factions are searching for missing money, and Davis initiates a heist based on her late husband’s notes. Meanwhile, there’s Colin Farrell as a crooked politician, Robert Duvall as his racist father and Daniel Kaluuya as a psychotic thug and they’re all sniffing around the cash. It takes about two hours of slow-burning menace and social commentary to get to the action, which is swift and undeniably exciting. The political stuff, about how the patriarchy use faked female empowerment news stories to disguise their criminal activity, is sharp and very 2018, but ultimately this is bang-bang cops and robbers stuff, very enjoyable to watch and with some very flashy moments. It can be compared to the great 1996 B movie Set It Off, and that’s high praise for Widows.
Writer/director Bart Layton hit big with The Informer, and he brings a similarly edgy sensibility to American Animals, a true-crime thriller in which the stakes are small; a stolen book. It’s not just any book, but John James Audubon‘s The Birds of America which is housed in a weak-security specialist wing of a university library. A group of boys decide to steal the text, hoping to fence it to a dealer (Udo Kier, sinister as ever). American Horror Story’s Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan from A Killing of a Sacred Deer and Blake Jenner (Everyone Wants Some) are a capable team as actors, and they double-down on the fact that the boys were poorly prepared for the heist; it’s all the more agonising because the boys are foolish rather than truly criminal. Regular interruptions from the real culprits are used to skilfully muddy the water; there’s a game going on about remembering how the story went, and although there’s no great pay-off, American Animals is a punky and amusing fable. As Layton’s first effort as a screenwriter, it’s promising work.
Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon face of in this lively thriller set in the world of art heists. Russell plays Crunch Calhoun, a motorcycle stunt-driver who utilises his daredevil skills as part of a robbery syndicate, with brother Nicky (Dillon) and Frankie (Jay Baruchel) along for the ride. The Art of the Steal opens with an elaborate con that pushes Crunch into riding his bike through a subway car in Poland, but despite his best efforts, he lands himself in jail. On his return to civilian life, Crunch gets his gang back together for one last job, with Samuel Winter (Terence Stamp) helping the authorities who are keen to bring crunch down. Writer and director Jonathan Sobel gives the dialogue a Tarantino-style lick of irreverence, and while the genre may be stale, The Art of the Steal offers enough flash to keep the narrative drive moving until the twisty-turny pay-off.
The first feature from Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World, Terminator; Genesis) is a striking, low budget comedy/thriller , with William Forsythe, Adam Trese and Vincent Gallo as three losers who, inspired by a late-night rerun of the film noir Armoured Car Robbery, decide to stage their own amateur version of the crime. Being New Jersey incompetents, their plan goes awry, but the manner in which their family and romantic interests complicate their professionalism is caught with more subtlety than might be expected. With a title from Brando’s speech in On the Waterfront, and a storyline that references Italo Calvino short stories, Palookaville fully deserves its status as an unseen cult film; full of warmth and wit, it’s a minor classic. Frances McDormand also appears.
Bronwen Hughes directed this entertaining police drama, with the story torn from the headlines o 1980’s South Africa. Stander (Thomas Jane) is a tough cop who becomes disillusioned with life under apartheid. His reaction was to form the Stander gang, a high-profile team of bank robbers taking on the system and winning. Jane is an often overlooked talent who throws himself into the role, sporting crazy fashions and a variety of moustaches and sideburn combinations, with support from David O’Hara and Dexter Fletcher. Stander is a tall tale, executed with style, and it’s one of the few films about apartheid that avoid preachiness and look at the local complexities of the issues involved.
Pre American Hustle work from David O Russell, this Gulf War drama with a difference is a key film in his canon, demonstrating that he could deal with big stars and action while retaining his indie style. Russell and star George Clooney reportedly came to fisticuffs during filming, but if there was on-set tension, it doesn’t show in this heist film with a difference. Archie Gates (Clooney) and Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) are US soldiers who gets wind of a stash of hidden gold. She soldiers have selfish motives for their adventure, but the find themselves politicalised, and end up helping a group of Iraqi insurgents who are rebelling against Saddam Hussein. David O Russell makes this tale of mercenaries turned freedom fighters into a comic parable, staging one action sequence to the strains of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now and there ‘s also a notable torture sequence in which Troy is made to drink oil but his captors. A forerunner of Clooney’s Monuments Men, Three Kings is a war film that doesn’t reply on patriotism, but attempts to establish a common good across racial and international borders.