Thursday, February 7, 2013


As we all are quite aware, these are the days of high-profile franchise reboots/re-imaginings/just-plain-remakes.  Not that Hollywood has ever been a bastion of creativity, mind you, but there do seem to be a lot of these things floating around nowadays.  Like many people, I tend to treat these reboots with cynicism.  When I heard about Dredd (the remake of Judge Dredd), though, I was all for it.  Why?  Because the Stallone/Schneider movie is terrible.  If you're going to remake a movie, it's easier to improve a crappy one than a classic.

Man, the future sucks.  Most of the world is an irradiated wasteland.  Everyone left in America lives in Mega-City One, a sprawling concrete jungle that runs from Boston to Washington, DC.  Older buildings are left to decay, while super-skyscraper tenements house much of the population.  There are 17,000 crimes reported in the city each day, and there is only enough manpower in the police force to respond to 6% of those calls.  The police of Mega-City One are called Judges, and are allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner for any crime they come upon.  Dredd is the story of just another day for one such Judge, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban).
In the future, the police will smell all your farts and hold you accountable
Judge Dredd is given a probationary officer named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to assess.  Normally, Anderson would not be up for evaluation, as she failed her basic Judge testing --- but she happens to be the most powerful psychic on record, and the Department of Justice wants to make use of that talent.  The first crime Dredd and Anderson respond to is a triple homicide at the Peach Tree super-tenement.  What starts out as a simple murder bust quickly gets out of hand when the local drug lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) decides to make the entire 200-story building a war zone, with hundreds of people gunning for the Judges.
Trust me, these civilians are not as nice as they look

The acting in Dredd was a bit of a surprise to me, and I mean that in a good way.  Karl Urban did a good job deadpanning his way through this role; this is a part that was never meant for character development, and Urban kept steady throughout the film.  I was surprised that he never removed his helmet during the film, but swallowing his vanity helped keep Dredd the unemotional Dirty Harry clone that he should be.  I was even more impressed by  Olivia Thirlby.  She had the unpleasant job of being the rookie character that is going to be squeamish and stupid and wrong all the time, and yet she was surprisingly effective at providing an emotional core to this film.  I don't know if Dredd needed an emotional core, but it has one, and it was handled well.  Lena Headey was also very good as the wicked Ma-Ma.  Headey is becoming one of the better evil bitches in Hollywood, and she convincingly held her own in this ultra-macho action movie.
A beautiful woman that isn't treated as a sex object in an action movie: how novel!
Wood Harris was solid as a mean thug, and Domhnall Gleeson was pretty good as a weenie computer tech guy, but even they were essentially props for the three main characters to work around.  Still, I can honestly say that I enjoyed three actors in the remake of Judge Dredd.  How bizarre is that?

Dredd was directed by Pete Travis, and it is the first film of his I've seen.  He made some solid choices with Dredd.  While it is tempting to show off all sorts of technology and cool stuff when making a dystopian future film, Travis wisely chose to narrow this film's focus and keep the ball rolling.  The majority of the story happens inside the Peach Tree skyscraper, and the idea of the Judges being hunted by the inhabitants of Peach Tree is in place by the 30-minute mark.  The rest of the movie is a firefight, and the earlier half-hour was also action-packed. 
The storyboards for this scene just read "traffic"
Travis showcases the action well, but he also does a good job at pacing the film, throwing the Judges into one shitstorm after another.  That would have been more than enough to make this better than Judge Dredd, but Travis also added some humanity (via Anderson's character) and did some very cool work with the slow-motion sequences, too.  I loved that the slow-motion was utilized as part of the story, and the refracted light in those scenes was a nice touch. 
Slow-motion as part of the story?  Someone needs to tell Zack Snyder!
Of course, having Dredd shoot people while they are high on a drug that makes them see slow-motion rainbows also helps make this movie what it is.  To sum it up, I plan on seeing the next Pete Travis action movie in theaters.

In a movie about police officers who are allowed and encouraged to kill criminals, the main attraction for Dredd is always going to be the action.  And Dredd delivers.  This is a rare beast in the modern cinema jungle: an honest-to-goodness body count movie.  There are so many kills that I stopped counting within the first fifteen minutes.  With so many death scenes, they are not all going to be examples of gory excess, but there are some spectacular examples of bad-ass glorification of violence.  How about a slow-motion bullet to the face?
...or, possibly, a retro advertisement for Gushers?
If that doesn't do it for you, perhaps you would like a bullet that lights a fire inside a criminal's skull?
When I am police chief, we will call this ammo "default"
Dredd is easily the most violent movie of 2012 that I have seen, and it is also among the best action movies of the year.

Dredd probably isn't going to win over any new fans, though.  The ultra-violence can be a turn-off, and there is oodles of it.  There were some unexpected gems in this film, things that curious viewers will appreciate if they choose to watch.  For starters, the science-fiction in this movie is handled with a soft touch.  Sure, the Judges have guns that respond to voice commands, but most of the futuristic technology is subtle and left unexplained.  This film hints at a world with interesting bio-implants and bizarre tattoos, but the filmmakers were content to leave those stories unexplained, as background dressing.  Even more impressive was the portrayal of women.  Most of the time, women in action movies are there to look pretty and (fingers crossed) find their way into various stages of undress.  Not in Dredd.  Both female leads are tough, strong, and essentially asexual; that works even better with Judge Dredd, because he is equally asexual. 
"I get hard for the law"
They are just three tough people, trying to shoot the hell out of some folks.  Dredd also brings with it one of my favorite martial arts movie tropes: the building full of bad guys.  This is underutilized in English-speaking films.  Why go to exotic locations, when you can keep everything compact and tense, with literally hundreds of potential enemies?  I love action movies that don't bother with elaborate excuses and just go for the action.

I can't say that Dredd is exactly what it needs to be, though, even though I like a lot of things about it.  There are some minor visual complaints, like the fact that it was very difficult to differentiate between Judges during a fight scene.
At least two of these are not Karl Urban, that's all I can say for sure
The bigger problem for me was the lack of humor in the script.  I don't mean to imply that I missed Rob Schneider by any means, but this material deserves more dark humor.  Urban did a great job delivering his lines with a spot-on deadpan.  All he needed was a script that made some of the lines just a little bit funnier.
Genuine appreciation, or does the frown show ironic approval of a bad parent?  You decide.

That's not much of a complaint, when you think about the source material.  Dredd could have been utter trash.  Easily.  Instead, it is an unrelenting action movie with enough violence for three shoot-em-ups.  There's a fine line between nonstop action and brainless blood orgy, but Dredd toes the line with style and winds up one of the year's biggest surprises.

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