Monday, January 14, 2013

"Dredd": review

I just watched "Dredd" on iTunes. I admit to being morbidly curious about the film, and to having a naughtily prurient interest in co-star Olivia Thirlby, who proves to be as winsome and engaging as the preview trailer makes her out to be.

"Dredd" is a 2012 remake of Sylvester Stallone's 1995 "Judge Dredd," itself a film adaptation of a British comic-book series. The new film stars Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy in 2009's "Star Trek" and Éomer in "The Lord of the Rings," among other roles) as the eponymous Dredd, a gun-toting Judge who embodies and enforces the law in MegaCity One, a massive, futuristic dystopia of 800 million souls that runs from Boston to Washington, DC. Beyond the boundaries of the city lies the Cursed Earth (which figured prominently in the Stallone version, but which is merely mentioned in the new film and then forgotten). I'm inclined to classify "Dredd" as a "tentative buddy film": the plot is mainly about the evolving relationship between the unemotional Dredd and his empathic young trainee, Anderson (Thirlby), who has failed her Judge training but is put on duty under Dredd's supervision because she is a mutant psychic (shades of Verhoeven's "Total Recall"), and could prove useful as a Judge in that capacity. The story is basically about Anderson's first day on the job, and one of the things she quickly learns from Dredd is that one rookie in five fails to survive the first day.

The plot of "Dredd" is simple and straightforward, like the character of Dredd himself. Dredd and Anderson respond to an alert regarding three murders in an enormous tower called Peach Trees: the three murder victims have been skinned alive, dosed with a drug called Slo-Mo—which causes one to perceive reality moving at one percent of its natural pace—and thrown off an interior balcony to splat on the floor one kilometer below. Dredd and Anderson find themselves trapped inside the building, which is controlled by Ma-Ma, an ex-prostitute turned drug lord, who uses Peach Trees as her base to manufacture and distribute Slo-Mo to all of MegaCity One. Ma-Ma orders her thugs to hunt down and kill the two Judges, and after that, the chase is on.

In a typical buddy film, the two main characters start off on the wrong foot, then gradually warm to each other, and eventually become inseparable. I call "Dredd" a "tentative buddy film" because Dredd seems incapable of warmth (in the Stallone version, Dredd eventually responds to the feminine charms of Diane Lane's Judge Hershey, but who wouldn't warm up to Lane's charms?); there are no stolen kisses to brighten this story. But "Dredd" is also a satire: the ultra-violence is bloody to the point of cartoonishness, and the film never truly explores the sanctity of the law being upheld. As a result, we don't really come to understand what motivates Judges to do what they do day after day, year after year. Instead, we see a series of summary judgments, and are left with the sickening feeling that the Judges merely enforce a joyless police state, one in which any misstep carries a severe penalty, up to and including death. How heroic, then, are the Judges? Why should we root for them? Karl Urban's voiceover narration is cryptic: from his point of view, Judges are the only thing preserving order in the midst of chaos.

"Dredd" is part "The Matrix," part "Total Recall," part "Blade Runner," and part "Shoot 'Em Up." That latter movie, in particular, came to mind as I watched the exaggerated gore: bullets shattering cheekbones, causing hilarious ripples in fat gangsters' torsos, and tearing through scenery. For a while, I thought "Dredd" and "Shoot 'Em Up" had been directed by the same guy, but no: it turns out that "Dredd" was directed by Pete Travis, and "Shoot 'Em Up" was directed by Michael Davis. Despite the way the movie references other movies, "Dredd" ended up being its own thing—a much leaner, meaner version of the Stallone film, without the annoying sidekick (played by Rob Schneider in 1995), the operatic soundtrack, and the grandiose scenery. This "Dredd" made good use of Peach Trees as an action setting: part labyrinth, part cavern, part abyss, the superbuilding was an uncredited character in the story.

Karl Urban doesn't try to play Dredd as cartoonishly as Stallone did. Urban's Dredd is more of a Dirty Harry (right down to the voice: as Christian Bale knows, when in doubt, you channel Eastwood): perpetually pissed off, reliably ruthless, menacingly monolithic. Thirlby's psychic trainee, by contrast, goes through a more visible character arc. Dredd notes, early in the film, that Anderson has the shakes. "You don't look ready," he growls, right before they enter a fire zone. But by the film's final act, Dredd's assessment has changed: "You look ready," he admits, right before they plunge into action again.

Most striking was the normally gorgeous Lena Headey (the sexy Queen Gorgo, wife of Leonidas in "300"), looking for all the world like a strung-out, beaten-up meth addict in this film. Headey's Ma-Ma is a ruthless, calculating killer, an incarnation of the city's decay, not afraid to dirty her hands by getting behind a minigun and blasting away an entire floor in an attempt to kill Dredd. Headey took to her role with obvious relish; it was a pleasure watching her work.

In all, I thought that "Dredd" was good, stupid fun. On one level, it was a satirical self-parody, and possibly even a cautionary tale about police states. On another level, it was a tentative buddy film, as Dredd's attitude toward his young protégée thawed ever so slightly over the course of the story. And on a visceral level, it was just an action flick about two people doing their best to survive a massive assault and take down the bad guy. Girl. I think "Dredd" deserves at least one viewing. As remakes go, it managed to avoid the cheeseball mistakes of its 1995 predecessor; all the corniness had been stripped away, and plenty of gore had been put in its place.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

If you thought "Dredd" was good, stupid fun, you need to see Karl at his stupid best as the god Cupid and a Roman called Caesar. He was in some of the better episodes of both "Hercules" and "Xena" and really filled out his wings.

Dammit! Now, I'm watching Karl and a couple of his fellow Herc and Xena actors in the absurd Kiwi film, The Price of Milk. However, my watching has more to do with the lovely Danielle Cormack than Karl.