21 September 2012

Dredd Sentences You to a Bloody Good Time

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The Charge: Attempting to re-start a film adaptation of a classic comic book character.

The Verdict: Guilty.

The Sentence: Director is hereby ordered to make more Judge Dredd Movies.

Any Last Words: I am the law.

The upcoming re-make of RoboCop now feels even more unnecessary than it did before. Dredd has just handed us an over-the-top violent buddy cop SF flick that fills up that niche for the next year, maybe two. Dredd is an old-style Paul Verhoeven film in feel, although missing much of his satirical glee, and hits perfect for a September action movie, trading in any “mainstream” credentials for hard-R blood and guts on a narrow budget. It’s a wet blast for action fans and dark SF junkies.

You may recall a similar film, Judge Dredd, from 1995, which starred Sylvester Stallone as the dispenser of justice in the fallen future. Based on the character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra that appeared originally in the UK anthology magazine 2000 AD, the Stallone movie was a big-scale epic aiming for broad appeal to become a summer blockbuster, hence the inclusion of a comic sidekick played by Rob Schneider and the sanding away at the harsher elements of the setting. Because of Stallone’s celebrity status, he spent much of the film without the Judge’s eye-shielding helmet on, which the character never removes in the comics. I haven’t seen Judge Dredd ’95 since it was in theaters, but I do recall enjoying it.

I can’t imagine I would feel the same way about Stallone’s colorful but silly film if I watched it today, and this new take on Wagner and Ezquerra’s character has crushed any wish to revisit it. Costing a tight $45 million (pocket change among today’s blockbusters), the British/South African production Dredd sticks closer to source material and ditches any compromise for the general audience: it is authentically brutal dystopian action that works on the simple plane of crunchy ultra-violence.

One distracting element of Dredd, at least for me, is its enormous story similarity to The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian martial arts film released earlier this year. The two have identical set-ups: law enforcement officers enter an apartment building under the control of a powerful drug lord, who locks down and seals the building and orders all the criminals inside to wipe out the intruders. The similarity is a coincidence: Dredd started filming before The Raid did, and it is unlikely either production new about the scripts for the other. Nonetheless, for viewers who have seen The Raid (and if you’re an action fan, it’s a must-see), the first third of Dredd will spin their heads from déjà vu. But once the story settles in, the distraction vanishes, because where The Raid is all about hand-to-hand combat and balletic choreography, Dredd is all about guns, guns, guns, grenades, guns, guns, and more guns. Plus, it has a singular identity because of its unfazeable, unsmiling title character.

For the uninitiated into Judge Dredd’s world, the lowdown: America is a radioactive wasteland in the near future, and civilization huddles in Mega-City One, an urban sprawl that reaches from Boston to Washington D.C. The ruins of pre-war buildings sit in the shadows of super skyscrapers called “blocks,” which are self-contained communities. Crime is rampant, and law enforcement depends entirely on “Judges,” an efficient conflation of police officer, judge, jury, and executioner. The Judges can only respond to six percent of the crime in Mega-City One, but they definitely close the cases on that six percent.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) begins his day with trainee Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant with mind-reading abilities who has already failed the Judge test, but whose powers make her a possible important asset. Dredd and Anderson answer a call at the Peach Tree block, the headquarters of crime lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Ma-Ma ripped control of the block out of hands of three other gangs, and from the building she governs production of “slo-mo,” a drug that causes the brain to see everything moving in… well, you figure it out. When Dredd and Anderson arrest a potentially devastating witness against Ma-Ma, she seals off the entire two hundred-story blocks, trapping the two Judges in with a skyscraper full of killers with order to squash them. Dredd then completes many legal cases, most ending with a squishy red verdict.

“Squishy” is a good term for the violence on parade here. Director Pete Travis never passes up an opportunity to messily kill people in splatter-punk style. The drug slo-mo offers him excuses to orchestrate hyper-detailed deaths that not only show blood bursting and exit wounds gaping splitting apart, but even the distortion waves over the skin around the injuries. Travis keeps a rein on the slo-mo scenes, which would kill the pacing if they were overused. Only in the finale does he keep one of these sequences going a bit too long… but the close out is pleasingly… squishy.

As the title character, Karl Urban projects great charisma considering the obstacles he’s up against: acting with only the lower half of his face, and displaying a single emotion at all times. Anderson’s mutant is the true protagonist of the story, the character with an actual development arc, and she’s necessary to give the audience someone who can show fear and concern beside Dredd’s Wall of Glower. Thirlby does well as the only attractive person in all of Mega-City One, and the chemistry between her and Urban feels like the Murphy-Lewis combo in RoboCop (yet another reason Dredd erases the need for that re-make). Anderson’s psychic abilities get full use, and result in one of the film’s best moments when she mentally interrogates their prisoner and proves her resolve as a Judge. Kudos also to the make-up artists and the hairdressers for making a gorgeous actress like Lena Headey look so damn repellent as Ma-Ma.

The budgetary limits give the movie a realistic aesthetic that resembles a contemporary, ruined U.S. with occasional appearances of higher technology. The sheen of the dystopia in the recent failed Total Recall re-make is nowhere near this Mega-City One. The location shooting in Cape Town, South Africa doesn’t look far different from the modern slums of a city like Detroit, but this helps to distinguish this Dredd from its glossy predecessor. It has an older, dirtier exploitation movie vibe, appealing straight to the action lover crowd. Even the music score sounds like it could have gotten pulled out of the 1979 classic The Warriors. Now that I think of it, yeah, The Warriors… that’s the look Dredd has, except with computer displays.

The budget is responsible for my only criticism of the movie: it needs to go even bigger. Travis and his crew do all they can to push the limits of mayhem on the screen, but as the film starts to wind up, it also starts to wind down. A huge set piece seems missing from the last quarter, so Dredd literally slo-mos to its end. With more money to throw around for a splat-tastic action closer, I’d have no hesitation in calling Dredd the best pure-action flick of the year so far. It’s an almost—but that’s still pretty great.

Producer Alex Garland has announced that if Dredd can make over $50 million stateside, he can set up a sequel, the next in an envisioned trilogy. I’m excited about to see what this creative team can pull off with a budget that lets Dredd’s world into the rest of Mega-City One and possibly the wastes. Dredd is a promising opening salvo, and I want more. I would insist that you go see, but… I am not the law.