September 30, 2012
The world of Dredd (or Dredd 3D) is a world where justice is swift and judgement is brutal, whether you are an officer of good or a hooligan of bad. There seems to be no middle ground in the future of Mega-City One: you serve the law or you fight against it. And, due to the overgrown population in an ever decreasing space (the Earth has suffered some sort of post-apocalyptic destruction), fighting against it is the winning ideology.
Judge Dredd is most likely familiar to people because of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone disaster though the character, and its world, dates back to the late 1970s in the annual 2000 AD comics from England. It's certainly a niche comic book character that lacks the business or prestige associated with more mainstream brands like Marvel, DC, and even Darkhorse and the characters within it.
And a lot of this has to do with distribution (Judge Dredd was a British export) but it also has to do with approach and style. Though books from Marvel and DC might have their metaphorical moments in the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s, the adventures of Spider-Man, Batman, and whomever else is pretty straightforward: the characters are accepted at face value and the story lines are taken seriously.
Judge Dredd, while very much a comic book from characters to setting to mythology, is considered more satirical. And, in this country, we've seen Mega-City One in our own backyards, be it the massive gentrification movements in major cities, the high-rise projects of Chicago and New York, white flight, and/or the project run drug trades in most major cities with a high percentage of poor.
Dredd, the most recent film adaptation, doesn't focus much on racial politics but instead focuses on urban blight and the quasi-ethical existence of providing justice without the input of the everyday citizen. If there is anything Star Trek about this future, it's that crime/law suits any race and there is at least unification there; in Mega-City One, everybody fights or fights back together.
If anything, Dredd focuses more on gender roles, or the lack of competition of said roles, by showing males and females on both sides of the law with mixed results. It is this angle, though a minor one, that makes Dredd seem a bit more then it seems on paper. Because Dredd certainly isn't outright satirical. In fact, it leaves opinions out of the screenplay and allows the audience to determine what they think. It is this blank slate approach that also makes Dredd successful: no complex back stories, no forced exposition, and no finger pointing to a left or right viewpoint.
Dredd manages to be both informative on our culture while also all together quiet on it. In the end you get a can't-lose plot involving two heroes (or are they???) stuck in a giant maze facing death at every corner. It's the environment that fill in the rest.
Dredd, played by Karl Urban, is a Street Judge. Since crime is so brutal and occurs so often, Street Judges can arrest, arraign, and sentence all at once. If the crime deserves death, Street Judges can go ahead and perform the execution on site. Dredd is quite the Street Judge: fearless, emotionless, and a by-the-book soldier. Unlike a Dirty Harry or Martin Riggs, Dredd is untouchable. He sees no reasons other then what his law demands and those who oppose him don't live long to think about it.
On the surface, this seems like normal action fare. But Urban, while replicating the physical aspects of the drawn character to a T (something he has been good at lately: his DeForest Kelley in Star Trek is spot-on), wisely sticks to character, allowing no personal quirks or moments of reflection/doubt creep in. In the end, Judge Dredd is almost purposefully one dimensional, as his job itself tells you all you need to know.
Credit goes to the screenplay for this aspect. Besides being a piece about a character who basically offers the audience no ethical stance (save the law itself) and provides no virtues worth cheering for (he is mechanical and ruthless and gives almost no slack in any situation), the movie manages to invest you in Dredd's quest to put an end to the lawlessness of his city, even though we know going in that it is impossible.
Dredd's got two major problems during this particular day we witness. For starters, he must break in a 'mutie' (or mutant) who failed as a Judge trainee but has psychic powers that give her an edge not often seen on the streets. And second, stuck with the 'rookie', he gets trapped inside one of Mega-City One's largest high-rises (over 200 levels) by a sadistic drug dealer simply named Ma-Ma (Lena Heady, going for scary AND ugly) who isn't scared of Judges and orders all 80+ thousand residents to dispatch with them. No reward offered: Ma-Ma demands their deaths and human collateral damage is acceptable.
Ma-Ma is particularly ruthless as she came from the lowest place possible: a red light district hooker disfigured for undisclosed reasons during her 'work'. After becoming legendary for her now-notable disfigured face and her wherewithal to bite the manhood off of the man who did her wrong, Ma-Ma eventually creates a drug called Slo-Mo and begins to distribute and gain territory, first taking out floors in her complex, Peach Tree, and eventually the entire complex itself, all 200 floors.
Dredd literally goes from floor 1 to 200, fighting off Ma-Ma's troops, crazed addicts, free-wheeling citizens, and even treacherous judges, all in the name of justice.
Now, back to the aforementioned ultra-violence. Dredd doesn't pull any punches but the film sticks with its setting and remains brutally simple. Any stylized violence occurs during drug sequences where addicts and users enjoy their Slo-Mo, which, as you might have guessed, slows down the senses, making the user feel like time is going by at about one mile per hour.
But the violence isn't of the humorous variety, like The Expendables 2, but is frighteningly real. The psychic character named Anderson, played by the lovely and unique Olivia Thirlby, has the ability to not only read minds but enter them. When she enters the mind of one of Ma-Ma's key lieutenants, she sees the depravity of the men in the tower: rape is not beyond these men and, unlike a fearless action hero from the '80s, Anderson is rightfully terrified of what may become of her if captured.
Besides these unpleasant ideas, Dredd is also excessively gory. The slow motion deaths are a little too CGI so they don't pack a lot of wallop in the gross out factor but there are numerous point blank head shots and bodies falling, in full view, from 200 stories that might make the average viewer feel a bit uneasy. But this never feels intentional or gratuitous. Dredd lets you know from minute one that these aren't villains to be trifled with.
In fact, Dredd lives up to its name by instilling that very quality, dread, into the proceedings. While Dredd himself might not be scared, exactly, the story's idea of throwing Anderson into the mix gives us not only our on-the-scene eyes, as we sort of inhabit Anderson as a character thrust into this world, but we get the much needed sympathy we don't get from Dredd himself.
The interesting thing about the movie is the fact that through no dialogue or exposition we see both sides of a problem: the cops, who also reside in a massive high-rise, are almost as unflinching and brutal as the criminals. But they get to hide behind the book of law. Some criminals, like Ma-Ma, did what they did to survive. And while Ma-Ma might have gone a bit too far with her power, others seem like they have no other options.
Dredd can paint the good guys as bad and the bad guys as good at various times without a single hint and that makes this future world of Dredd so bleak: who is really good? And, in the end, who really wins? At one point, Dredd mentions to Anderson that the Judges can only reply to 6% of the crimes. In a city continually crumbling, what is the point?
And that brings up other issues that you simply pick up by the existence of the world and not any forced ideology of the script: do Judges really believe in what they do if their every day existence is futile? And when you slice off the head and another head grows back instead of the body dying, why do you keep going on? Urban is so effective as Dredd that you can read all this and nothing simply from conversations he has with those that see differently from him.
This isn't an actor's picture though Urban does deserve credit for being incredibly badass and sympathetic despite everything about the character saying otherwise. Thirlby is a unique looking person who manages that fine line between scared and confident all at the same time. She holds her own in this seemingly macho world and never overreaches in credibility.
Wood Harris returns to the high rises (where he left off in The Wire) and plays a particularly disgusting baddie who gets more frightening as time goes on. Seemingly useless when captured in the beginning, Harris slowly gets into Anderson's and the audiences heads. You know, if let loose, the man will do you harm.
Lena Heady is brave enough to go hideous and she has some of the more disturbing moments in the film, be it the aftermath of her infamous dick-biting scene, or her forcing a computer hacker to accept ocular implants. She and Dredd never really get too much face time together but the inevitable final confrontation is satisfying.
The rest of the cast is unremarkable but it is meant to be that way. Dredd will slip in a few shocking connections between innocents and bad guys here and there but most of the riff raff is treated as such and disposed of accordingly.
Technically, this low budget film looks fantastic. I've heard a lot of people arguing that the future doesn't look futuristic enough. This, to me, would render the film pointless. To me, poverty is poverty and if the government created a bunch of 200 story high rises to shepard in the poor and violent, those futuristic buildings are going to look pretty crappy eventually. And seeing as the world is wasted, materials must be light. I can't see this being a megalopolis. It's simply large high-rises mixed with shanty-towns and it all makes sense.
Director Pete Travis, whose directed a few films that I have not seen, the most popular being Vantage Point, does a fantastic job here with little money. This has the look of a $200 million dollar film on a budget $150 million less and, as mentioned before, Travis lets his environment do a lot of the talking, creating a truly intimidating and ruthless atmosphere.
Also in the technical areas, the film's score, much like the recent Total Recall remake, is fantastic. I'm not generally a fan of techno or industrial dance (though I do like industrial metal to a certain degree) but the composer's use of electronics here is fitting and adapts to a theater's speakers quite well.
*be warned: the above clip may be a bit disturbing if you do not like gore.
The 3D aspects are a bit disappointing. Despite being filmed in Real3D, the same type of 3D used for Avatar and a few other films, it seems like a few things were missed in the processing. The depth isn't as good as Avatar or a few other Real3D films and sometimes a hallway will stick out too awkwardly as oppose to stretch as it should. But this is a minor complaint: this is still a young technology and is miles ahead of gimmicky, traditional 3D.
Another drawback is when rouge Judges fight Judge Dredd himself. Much like Alien3, in which everyone is fucking bald and you can't tell what the shit is going on, when Judges fight Judges, your guess is as good as mine as to who is winning. Some sloppy editing there makes those sequences unwatchable but that, thankfully, takes up only five minutes of screen time.
So if you want to see something unrelenting but also unbiased towards the battle of good vs. evil, Dredd is your movie. But, if you hate gore, you may need to skip.
*for a funny and informative look at the Sly Stallone version of Judge Dredd (and of other movies as well), please check out my favorite website on the interwebs Good Bad Flicks.