Given the title, it comes as a surprise that writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s third film – after Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 – is his least violent, though that may be because its shock-gore quotient is diluted throughout a leisurely 158 minutes by a great deal of well-turned, perfectly-delivered dialogue. Set in the fictional city of Bulwark, which is a mash-up of New York City and Canadian film locations, it parallels two teams of male partners – a couple of white cops who cross a blurred line into a decidedly grey moral/legal area, and a couple of black crooks whose inclination might be to shift the other way – and sets them on a course for confrontation triggered by economic circumstance and the arrival of a krewe of masked stone-bastard criminals. It’s an interesting genre frill that the American noir characterisations of believably putupon cops and underworld habituess co-exist with almost literally monstrous Euro-accented melodrama villains – a shadow world epitomised by two former screen Draculas, Udo Kier as an informant and Thomas Kretschmann as the murdering master criminal.
Henry (Tory Kittles), just out of prison, finds his Mom turning tricks and his wheelchairbound brother dreaming of a career in games design – and throws in with pal Biscuit (Michael Jai White) in a get-rich-quick scheme with a high risk potential. Detectives Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended without pay by their chief (Don Johnson) after their showily brutal takedown of a latino drug connection (the world’s most typecast actor, Noel G) – though it’s an irony that the cameraphone footage of the pusher having his head trodden on is mild compared to the treatment the cops have given the guy’s girlfriend (Liannet Borrego) to complete the bust, as she has to stand naked and soaked under a ceiling fan. Ridgeman has a wife with ME (Laurie Holden), a daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olson) who’s been repeatedly assaulted on the street, and a need to move out of the neighbourhood, while Lurasetti is trying to find a time to propose to his upscale girlfriend.
Given the casting of Gibson, whose career was famously sidelined by racial outbursts (directed, it should not be forgotten, against cops as much as against minorities), the ironies are laid on thick – and this touches uncomfortably on the complexities of racial power imbalances in America. It potentially feeds into conservative fantasies with its white cops steeped in a sense of entitled victimhood even, as it spends as much time on black characters who are in equally deep binds (Henry and Biscuit even have to get into whiteface for the heist). If there’s an imbalance, it’s partly down to casting – Kittles and White are excellent, but don’t have the star power of Gibson and Vaughn – and the way things shake out in the last act suggests Zahler has a sense of the future which doesn’t jibe with current events in America but also tips slightly too far into the fantastical (elsewhere, the film isn’t as full-on bizarro as earlier Zahler joints). That running time allows for tipped-in sub-plots, like a big build-up for guest star Jennifer Carpenter as a bank employee reluctant to go back to work after maternity leave and a showpiece for Fred Melamed as a speechifying manager … and a few self-contained bits that show the heist crew’s appalling set-up crimes. But there’s also space for just sitting in the car and chatting, with Zahler’s dialogue style – heightened reality, but without all that Tarantino pop culture backwash – a gift to the cast.