Many of the greatest pre-millennial action movies had a roughness to them which has been steadily smoothed out of the genre over the past ten years by inflated budgets and risk-averse studios. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake sanitised Paul Verhoeven’s grimy delight into anonymity, while this year’s best blockbuster – Joss Whedon’s Avengers – had a flair for dialogue and character to bolster its impressive action, but inhabited the same anodyne Marvel movie universe as its predecessors.
On the flipside, when blockbusters from the ’80s and ’90s were bad, they were truly diabolical (nowadays they just tend to be boring, which might be worse), and Sylvester Stallone’s achingly misguided Judge Dredd marks one of the era’s lowest points. Fortunately, the 2012 Dredd not only corrects everything wrong with the Stallone debacle, but resurrects the unironic, balls-to-the-wall actioner, unafraid to get nasty with its audience, that has seemed extinct for the better part of a decade.
Director: Pete Travis
US Release Date: Sept. 21, 2012
Comparisons are going to be made with The Raid, the Indonesian martial arts thriller with which Dredd shares a plot. It should be pointed out that since both movies were in production at the same time, neither can be called a rip-off of the other. Such coincidences are not uncommon in the movie industry: remember Dante’s Peak and Inferno, or Armageddon and Deep Impact? For anyone worried, or already complaining, about sitting through the same movie twice, Dredd is all about firepower where Raid was singularly focused on martial arts. It’s a completely different style of action, and the characters driving it give each movie a distinct flavour. That’s to say nothing of how nary a complaint is heard when Marvel recycle an identical plot structure for every one of their movies since Iron Man. Dredd may share a plot in common with Raid, but I’d rather sit through a plot I’ve only seen once before, with completely different dynamics, than the same movie several times over, only populated by people with slightly different superpowers.
One of Dredd‘s neatest tricks is being a character piece which rarely focuses on character. Dredd has no overt arc, and speaks almost entirely in grunted monosyllables. It’s not an origin story, as he’s already a quasi-legendary figure among his fellow Judges once the movie begins. Instead, the movie defines him by making him the focal point through which the audience make sense of the fascistic battleground of Mega-City One. With an urban sprawl permanently on the brink of violent anarchy, an emotionless enforcer like Dredd, operating by a set of unquestioned rules, is the only way of maintaining control.
His ‘judgments’ are exaggeratedly harsh, but never ridiculously so. He doesn’t go around executing everyone who looks at him funny, but instead applies a particularly strict set of pre-determined sentences. The plot works because it is an extreme version of a Judge’s everyday beat gone horribly wrong, rather than another meaningless apocalyptic threat. When Dredd sums up all he and partner Judge Anderson had been through as though it involved nothing more than a few uncooperative ‘perps’, it tells you everything you need to know about the character and his place in the world.
He evolves as a character, but only a little: Anderson is imperfect as a Judge, being too compassionate to lay down the law as unhesitatingly as Dredd despite her enormous power. Their interactions give him a slightly different perspective on morality in a broader spectrum than black and white, and while he’s ninety-nine percent of the same Dredd at the end as at the beginning, she leaves him with just a smidgen of hope that the world might one day be improved, rather than just prevented from collapsing.
Karl Urban is flawless as Dredd, delivering single-word lines in a voice so gruff it makes Christian Bale’s Batman sound like Pee-Wee Herman’s dweebier, lavender-gargling baby brother. The helmet never comes off – although the back of his head is glimpsed very briefly – and his jaw is scythed with a permanent scowl, but Urban’s tightly controlled movement and body language conveys the character’s ferocious discipline, and his angry antagonism is frequently played for very effective laughs in addition to the expected badassery. (A little of the comic’s satire wouldn’t go amiss next time, but that’s the smallest quibble for a movie this frequently funny). If he were the villain – and he’s not far off – he’d be the kind who’s so much nasty fun you secretly want him to win. It’s a perfect pitch for the character and a far cry from the horrific kitsch which sank Stallone’s interpretation.
While the other characters rightly play second fiddle, Olivia Thirlby is wonderful as Anderson, managing to sell her distress at what she’s having to do without becoming mopey. Lena Headey’s scar makeup bears most of the weight in personality terms, but the actress gives gang leader Ma-Ma a delight in animalistic cruelty which gives context to the City’s need for a protector like Dredd. Domhnall Gleeson’s pallid unnamed ‘Clan Techie’, meanwhile, starts out as a standard hacker figure but is later revealed to have a deeper purpose in the story, slyly foreshadowed through the movie’s first two acts.
If the character work is deep but almost invisibly subtle, the action disguising it is equally commendable for the opposite reason. It’s near-relentless from start to finish, but never shy of finding ways to mix up the odds or balance of power between Ma-Ma and Dredd. While the CG blood splashes are too obviously fake to be as satisfying as a bursting squib, the practical work is delightfully messy, and the enthusiasm for bursting heads and spilling guts is as childishly infectious as the best (or should that be silliest) of classic Arnie. The only serious disappointment is that slo-mo, the drug which Ma-Ma is attempting to spread across Mega-City One, is only used for a handful of gorgeous (and bloody) vignettes, a plot device whose main purpose is to justify the movie’s 3D and never sees its obvious combat potential put to use.
Speaking of the 3D, any long-time Flixist readers (hooray for you!) will know I’m not a fan of the technology. If the London release is anything to go by, the 2D Dredd will be getting extremely limited distribution: only one (fairly out of the way) cinema in the entire city was showing it, at one time of day. Despite my love for the film, this should not be considered an acceptable practice. Whether you support 3D or not, audiences deserve to be given the choice, not least as it penalises those with vision problems who would either be unable to watch the movie or forced to pay extra for something they could not experience. Should Dredd prove successful, it wouldn’t surprise me if the movie used as ‘proof’ of audiences’ preference for 3D, despite the deck being so severely stack. I’m not suggesting those who enjoy 3D should not see the movie, but if you are of a similar opinion to me on the matter, try and find the 2D version if you can. The movie industry should not be rewarded for trying to force viewers to accept something they do not want, and the only way to send that message is to stick to your guns, even if it means a little more travelling than usual.
(For the record, the lack of 2D availability has not affected the score at the end of this review).
While I obviously didn’t see the 3D version, the movie was shot with 3D cameras, so should represent one of the better examples of the technology to date. The visual emphasis on the vertiginous interior of the Peach Trees tower block should play well, as should the spectacular ‘slo-mo’ shots. No matter which version you see, Dredd is among the best actioners in recent years, at once unabashed in its love of old-fashioned blood and bullets spectacle, whilst sneaking delivering a character piece behind the bombast. The movie’s latter half takes a few too many shortcuts – Judge Anderson forgets her psychic powers when they’d be most useful, a skateboarding ramp appears in a ridiculously convenient place to save the characters’ lives, and Dredd saves the day at the end with a completely unjustified assumption – for Dredd to be the classic it sometimes threatens, but nevertheless represents the faithful, fearless adaptation John Wagner’s comic has long deserved.