The story is as predictable as expected, with the usual guns, cars and money, though drawn out to an unhurried 158 minutes. There are ostensible good men turned bad, and one who is perhaps less bad. There are women (Jennifer Carpenter makes sympathetic a disposable character), a retinue of the negligible, the victimized, the soon to be dead. Most of the characters fit into three categories — evil men, men who stand in evil’s way and collateral damage — and some from each will be sacrificed on the hard-boiled altar. This includes a baby, whose sole function is to fool you into thinking that things won’t turn really ugly. They do, which makes optimistic viewers suckers.
Zahler likes to pull back to show you people in their environments, in vaulted and confining spaces. He plays around with light and dark, but mostly dark, and a lot of the story takes place in shadows or low illumination. Almost everyone lives in an impersonal home seemingly decorated by the same depressed interior designer, with muted colors and generic furnishings that turn eachdwelling into a showroom. The characters are less blank largely because of Zahler’s writing, his eccentric metaphors and monologues. More prosaic is his hard embrace of the same old-fashioned American anti-authoritarianism — with its hatred for rules matched only by a love of guns — that helped define Dirty Harry.
The movie is generally watchable, even at its slowest and ugliest, simply because the actors are solid even when their characters are repellent. Gibson delivers a tamped-down performance, going for stolid, while Vaughn runs his mouth and enjoys his flashy bits. The most sympathetic character, Henry (a fine Tory Kittles), occupies another story line that soon crosses Brett and Anthony’s. A newly released ex-con, Henry has a brother who uses a wheelchair and a mother who’s been turning tricks while he’s been in the pen. Brett has a daughter and a wife who has multiple sclerosis and uses a cane. Zahler seems to want to make Henry a counterweight to the detectives (Brett especially), as if to suggest that they’re alike, though their worlds and power couldn’t be more different.
This spurious parallelism, though, does suit the movie’s dog-eat-dog worldview or its baiting representation of the white characters’ racism. Some openly voice their bigotry, which might have been a bold choice if Zahler had interrogated it rather than given himself convenient outs. Anthony makes a joke about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He also has a black girlfriend, which is presumably meant to complicate his character but instead feels like a directorial hedge. When Brett’s wife says that she wasn’t a racist until she moved into their crummy neighborhood, her rueful delivery suggests that she was regrettably forced — dragged across concrete, perhaps — into prejudice. Zahler just lets her racism hang in the air unanswered, which says plenty.