Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #50: Dredd (2012)

Karl Urban & Olivia Thirlby in Dredd
Based on the trailer, you could be forgiven for dismissing Dredd as a low-rent, forgettable action feature, or at best a disposable reboot of a franchise nobody really liked in the first place (1995’s Judge Dredd). I certainly did, and even as an action movie fan I turned up my nose. I am happy to report that I was wrong: Dredd is one of the most finely-crafted action pictures of the last five years, and a necessary addition to any action junkie’s collection.

The plot is superbly straightforward: a species of super-cop called "Judges" patrol the streets of a post-apocalyptic East Coast, acting as judge, jury, and executioner for criminals whom they sentence on the spot. This rather drastic legal system is employed in an effort to combat the excessive amounts of crime committed in the overcrowded, polluted Mega-City One. One such lawman, the titular Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), is escorting a rookie Judge (Olivia Thirlby) on her first assignment. They are called to a 200-storey block of flats called Peach Trees, when the resident matriarch – a terrifying drug lord named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) – locks down the complex and demands the death of the interfering Judges. Dredd and the rookie must fight their way through legions of henchmen to execute Ma-Ma and seize their chance at escape. Dredd takes notes from the leanest and meanest of action screenplays, combining the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, one-man-army, "fly in the ointment" premise of Die Hard with the "fight your way to the top" video game style action of The Raid: Redemption. In a sea of films where the whole world (or indeed, the very universe itself) is often in jeopardy, an action flick with such a narrow focus is like a breath of fresh air. The all-consuming destruction that takes place in films such as Man of Steel is too shocking and visually exhausting to bear its own emotional weight; I much prefer stakes on a smaller scale. Dredd feels like just another day in the hellscape of Mega-City One, where stories like this are playing out all the time. This also makes the possibility of sequels (which Dredd is unlikely to get based on its middling box office performance, despite strong fan support) much more enticing, as the filmmakers haven't already shot their proverbial wad on an excessively "epic" storyline.

1995’s Judge Dredd was misguided in many ways, not the least of which was a fundamental misuse of the source material. Star Sylvester Stallone blamed the film’s poor reception in part on the choice to try and treat the themes of the original comics with respect, opining that the film should have been more humourous, and quipping that they shouldn’t have tried to make Hamlet when it was “more Hamlet and Eggs.” Stallone’s ill-advised comedic ideas aside, 2012’s Dredd does it right, latching directly onto the comic’s established themes of fascism, economic disaster, and the indifference of technological progress to the suffering of humanity. The massive and bleak urban wasteland of Mega-City One – and especially the central setting of the Peach Trees mega-complex – dwarfs its tiny inhabitants with an oppressive air of danger, poverty, desperation, and government control. The jackbooted Judges, ostensibly the “heroes” of this world, administer their unforgiving justice with an efficiency and lack of emotion that is troublingly reminiscent of the Gestapo, and they’re revealed to be just as fallible and prone to corruption as the people they protect. Perhaps 1995 was an inappropriate time to explore these themes (or perhaps an action film was the wrong vehicle for them), but they’re powerfully relevant today, and Dredd’s clever production design crafts a world in which they convincingly live and breathe.

Lena Headley in Dredd
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle keeps things sparse and efficient, reminding me of 1980s action films like Predator and Aliens in the camera’s command of geography; the viewer is never confused about where the characters are in a scene, or what direction the action is coming from. In recent years, directors such as Paul Greengrass have embraced a shaky, handheld camera style (especially prevalent in big-budget features such as The Hunger Games series, which displays little regard for quality action filmmaking). This technique, combined with a tendency towards lightning-fast editing, has the unfortunate effect of severely disorienting the viewer and ultimately disconnecting them from the scene. Dredd is refreshing in its “dated” approach, keeping the camera squarely planted and the cuts evenly spaced. Judge Dredd and his futuristic pistol dominate the frame, leaving no doubt as to his movements and intent, and the inventive action sequences – such as a shocking scene in which Ma-Ma and Co. use chain-guns to mow down an entire floor of residents in an attempt to kill Dredd – are brilliantly staged. Visually, Mantle and director Pete Travis gift the film with ample breathing room, and this gives us the chance to invest ourselves in even the most indulgent of sequences.

The most noticeable of these are the "slo-mo" sequences, in which characters inhale a narcotic that slows brain function to "one percent its normal speed," shifting everything (even the non-diagetic music) to super slow motion in a sparkling, euphoric haze. Sometimes this occurs before or even during an action scene, where gouts of digital blood become slowly-blooming flowers of vibrant paint. This was one of the more unique applications of 3D I had ever seen in a theatre, as the sequences take on a transcendent beauty that somehow isn't at odds with the carnage. Apparently Travis and the film's sound designers were inspired to create this effect after hearing a recording of a Justin Bieber song slowed down by 800%, which turns the fluffy pop track into an ambient choral masterpiece. Perhaps a statement on the inherent beauty of life amidst inevitable conflict? Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Regardless, these stand out as some of Dredd’s more creative and memorable sections.


A mark of great distinction for the film is the lack of ego displayed in its execution, particularly in the case of the casting and performances. Lena Headey excels as the villainess, playing Ma-Ma with frightening nihilism, but you wouldn’t exactly call her a box office draw. Olivia Thirlby, a virtual unknown, provides the audience with a relatable character as the rookie Judge Anderson, because the filmmakers (wisely) keep Judge Dredd himself at a distance to us – and she does a formidable job. Karl Urban had achieved moderate success with prior supporting roles, mostly in similar action-based sci-fi and fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Star Trek. He plays Judge Dredd as less a person than a force of nature here, almost like Darth Vader in the original Star Wars. He’s big and masked and dangerous, and while Dredd is positioned as the hero, he carries the same fearsome gravitas as Vader, and the same air of mystery. Urban expertly embodies the intractability and simplicity of the character, keeping his mouth mostly shut (and frowning) and his helmet on. That’s right – Dredd never once removes his helmet, an audaciously humble move for Urban, who easily could have demanded an “actor’s scene” or two be inserted in which we see Dredd’s face (or learn anything about his character or backstory, which we don’t, and for which I’m grateful). Urban seems wholly uninterested in stroking his ego. That the film succeeds on so many levels without the buoyancy of star power or a sense of self-importance is a testament to its craft. Also, as an aside, Dredd happens to pass the Bechdel feminist media test, containing multiple scenes in which female characters converse without discussing men, and portraying each of these women in gender-neutral roles. Most of the time, films of this type have a hard time giving female characters anything at all of import or interest to do, unless they’re a sex object. Dredd is an almost sexless movie, if you don’t count the depictions of violence, which are nigh-pornographic in their effect.

Dredd is not without flaw. It’s guilty of an action movie sin which irks me terribly: digital blood splatters. I will never understand why filmmakers have stopped using squibs in favour of this (no doubt very safe and cheap) alternative, when nothing will ever look as convincing as a packet of fake blood actually exploding on an actor or stuntman’s body. Where’s Paul Verhoeven when you need him? The entire film is also unabashedly dumb, with plenty of sophomoric dialogue and paper-thin characters. But it’s an action movie, and while that doesn’t forgive these issues, you have to take that context into account. Dredd delivers on exactly what it promises, and nothing more. It works not only because it’s self-aware, but because it walks the tightrope of our suspension of disbelief. Dredd takes itself just seriously enough that we buy into it, while also slipping into gleeful indulgence. It's a film that’s done its homework, borrowing from the best in its class to create something completely fresh and unique.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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