“Anchovies”, Vince Vaughn’s suspended cop Lurasetti mutters in place of a harsher word, as the reality of his situation hits him. After he and partner Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) are a little too rough with the culprits in an arrest, and their actions are caught on camera, both realise the fragility of their home lives in the face of financial pressure. It isn’t long before Ridgeman has formed a plan to get them out of the hole, drawing Lurasetti in with him for a job that will see them put their violent tendencies to good use, if not their respect for the law. Ridgeman’s determined to pull this off, no matter the consequences. Lurasetti needs convincing, never sure that their actions are morally acceptable. And as the two tail a van full of armed robbers down a dirt track in pitch black darkness, it’s hard not to share his doubts.

Dragged Across Concrete toys with a few of the buddy-cop movie staples, before contemptuously casting them aside. There is that same comic mismatch of ideology between one younger and one older partner – a strange full circle role for Gibson 30 years on from his role in Lethal Weapon. In an inversion of said trope, Gibson’s Ridgeman is still the maverick of the duo, the seasoned cop who believes he is owed more by the world than he has. It is a brilliant tweak, letting Vaughn fill the reluctant shoes of a man with the utmost trust in his partner, no matter the perceived danger. The banter between them utilises exceptional timing and strong wit that keeps the middle section of the film from stagnating; there are moments where it wouldn’t be out of place for Lurasetti to inform Ridgeman that he’s “getting too old for this shit”.

Much of the comedy is injected by the detailed, miserly characterisation of the two cops. Lurasetti’s penchant for being manipulated, both by his girlfriend and partner, is almost charming. Ridgeman’s compulsion for listing the likelihood of an outcome as a percentage is an intelligent device to enhance both the film’s tension and humour, sometimes at once. The latter is a role that does not seem to be too much of a stretch for Gibson, and at times the script seems to wink at the actor’s personal troubles a little too closely for it to be mere coincidence. Still, he and Vaughn are perfectly cast – neither has felt so at ease with the idiosyncrasies of a character for a good while.

In a prologue scene, Tory Kittles’ Henry Johns – another key character in the explosive events that will unfold – uses the phrase “fast forward” on two occasions. It is as if writer-director S Craig Zahler is taking the time to mock himself, allowing for the rest of the film to play out almost in slow motion. Such excruciating attention is drawn to the unglamorous side of police work: the seemingly endless stakeouts and patience to stave off engaging in conflict. It is another clever spin on the adrenaline fuelled crime film we are used to, and Dragged follows a similar pattern that Zahler’s previous film – last year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 – adhered to. Each violent action, and there are plenty to choose from, is grimacingly visceral, but here Zahler cuts away where Brawl lingered on the brutality. The shocking gratuity is aided by incredible sound editing; every trigger squeeze and bone crack echoes around the mind. Zahler has mastered the ultra-violent, pulpy noir thriller, evident from his sadistic, squirm-inducing misdirection. Calmer scenes lose their innocence for fear that the film could switch gears at any second.

For all the style and intensity woven into what is easily Zahler’s best film, there is something slightly bitter in the aftertaste. The duo operate in a deliberately grey area, but Zahler seems unsure whether he is glorifying or condemning their actions. This is exemplified in a presumably tongue in cheek scene near the beginning, when the two officers and their chief (a delightful cameo from Don Johnson) bemoan the diligence of the modern media. Setting up Ridgeman and Lurasetti as unlikeable characters from the off, the film later asks for them to be seen as anti-heroes – repeatedly calling upon each character’s slightly sad situation to justify their illegal actions. Some clarity of which protagonist to support could have propelled this film in the direction of cult classic, as could a slight trim of the excess self indulgences that stall the story. At a running time of 2 hours 39 minutes, the film can’t help but drag a little, in a different sense than the title suggests.