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DREDD
(**½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:
Pete Travis
Writer:
Screenplay by Alex Garland, adapted from the 2000 AD comic material by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra
Starring:
Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
Length:   95 minutes
Released:   092112
Rating:
R for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content
“What the film sometimes lacks in set-piece variety, it makes up for with a wide array of ultra-stylized violence that scatters body parts all over the place." 

I suppose another pass at adapting Judge Dredd is a perfect excuse to revisit material that was mined just 17 years ago. The first attempt, 1995’s “Judge Dredd,” was a misfire, and even those masochists who derive pleasure from its bad-movie pain would agree that it wasn’t the most faithful adaptation of the original comic books. With “Dredd,” director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland alleviate many problems--this take is a better film that’s much more reverent of and serious about its source material, but it may be just a little bit too serious to be considered completely faithful to it. Just as he does in the comics, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) operates as judge, jury, and executioner in a post-apocalyptic American society that’s now composed of dystopian mega-cities. Mega-City One stretches up and down the eastern seaboard, and Dredd patrols its streets, meting out swift, efficient justice in a borderline fascist system. When he’s saddled with a rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby) whose psychic abilities compensate for her other shortcomings, he’s charged with evaluating her performance as the two are drawn into a turf war between drug dealers in one of the city’s slummier districts (which is really saying something--forget urban decay, this is urban decomposition). Most of “Dredd” is hemmed up in this one building, dubbed “The Peach Trees,” where former hooker-turned-gang mogul Ma-Ma (Leana Headley) is holed up and peddling “Slo-Mo,” the newest dope teeming through the streets.

Setups don’t really get much simpler--Dredd and Anderson are trapped in the building and must survive Ma-Ma’s goons, all the while ascending the place to smoke her out. Such a premise begs easy comparisons to “The Raid,” which was conceived and shot around the same time, so this is more a case of Jungian synchronicity centered around guys punching and shooting each other in decrepit apartment buildings than IP theft. “Dredd” isn’t as good as “The Raid,” but it thrives on that same sort of leanness and efficiency. Aside from a few brief, talky asides, the action is wall-to-wall, with Dredd and Anderson fending off waves of bad guys. Unlike “The Raid,” hand-to-hand combat is sparse, so the action often devolves into Dredd spraying various sorts of artillery (his gun is like a Swiss-army knife that can spit everything from explosive bullets to fire). What the film sometimes lacks in set-piece variety, it makes up for with a wide array of ultra-stylized violence that scatters body parts all over the place. Everything splatters: brains, arms, teeth, and even entire bodies after they’ve been dropped from a hundred stories--after they’ve been flayed, of course.

The violence is unrelenting and unflinching, often to the point of reverence when the film simulates the effects of Slo-Mo by slowing the events down to the crawl--think Bullet-Time, only grittier and more bloody, as Dredd’s bullets create entry and exit wounds. When decelerated, the violence becomes nearly operatic and portentous, but remains messy, nasty, and gritty, particularly because the film has been processed through Lionsgate's house style, which roughly attempts to replicate the look and feel of being sent through a rusty grinder. It’s all very serious business, and “Dredd” is often a poster child for the recent tendency to ground properties in grimness and grittiness, an approach that’s worked out for the Hollywood machine lately. But here’s the thing: Judge Dredd almost always has its tongue planted in its cheek since it operates as satire. As the 80s and 90s comic book scene wore on, fuelled by outrageous musculature and even more outrageous gunplay, Judge Dredd started to feel like a specific reaction against that scene, as it dialed up ludicrous violence and knowing silliness.

The first film mistook that humor for unknowing, almost parodic nonsense--it was too silly to be considered satire, sort of like a Paul Verhoeven movie without much genuine wit. “Dredd,” on the other hand, goes the other way by stripping away a lot of the black-hearted humor. Punchlines still exist in the form of one-liners and a few instances of situational humor, but, on the whole, “Dredd” proceeds with a grim-faced severity instead of constantly winking at its audience. Sometimes, this feels like a missed opportunity; if the film had a heightened sense of wit to go along with its over-the-top splatter, it’d feel like the spiritual successor to Verhoeven, which would be appropriate since “Robocop” was essentially a riff on Judge Dredd in the first place. Instead, this just feels like a grounded take, with the world surrounding Dredd simply being a grungy hellhole rather than an absurd, satiric reflection of modern life, save for a couple of instances (when mouth-breathing gawkers whip out their cell phones to take pictures of corpses, it’s hard not to chuckle). As such, this film is a few steps away from following that path, and its missteps keep it from being funny and heightened enough to be considered a truly great Judge Dredd movie in tone.

To its credit, “Dredd” nails its title character, and Karl Urban deadpans his way through the film with a gruff scowl and a husky voice that subtly echoes Eastwood. Visually, he’s a dead ringer for Dredd, his protruding chin permanently affixed into a pouty demeanor. Throughout the movie, he rightfully remains a blank slate with an almost robotic sense of duty and justice; in a rare instance of the film’s self-awareness, Anderson probes his thoughts and hints that there’s something more hiding behind the rage and control, but the film then completely avoids plumbing the depths of Dredd’s psyche or burdening the proceedings with any sense of moral compunction. Perhaps this is the film’s best joke--that it so thoroughly ignores its own subtexts and simply subverts narrative expectations like this. Like Dredd himself it’s committed to kicking ass and not even worrying about taking names, and hats off to Urban for keeping the helmet on. At the same time, the stoic-ness and one note nature of the character does not make for good drama. He is essentially a killing machine without a personality to speak of. Not much of a rooting interest for the audience to latch on to.

Bringing more personality is Olivia Thirlby, best known as Juno’s gal-pal, so I’m not sure anyone pegged her as an ass-kicking sidekick for a borderline psychopath. She’s fine, though, especially because she brings a human dimension to ground the stakes. Her character’s psychic abilities seemingly wax and wane as the script sees fit, but it’s a nice wrinkle that pays off several times during the course of the movie. Lena Headey serves as the opposition, a sort of cranked-out looking meth addict with rotting teeth and a deep-set scar, so, like Urban, she sets aside her ego by downplaying her natural beauty. She also refuses to chew the scenery; in fact, her Ma-Ma is disconcertingly tranquil, her voice rarely raising above a muted tone. Regardless, she’s quite magnetic and brings a weird energy that’s offsetting; in a sea of testosterone, sweat, adrenaline, and gunfire, she’s cool and composed to the very end.
Her performance speaks to the type of film “Dredd” is as a whole--it’s wild, kick-ass, and certainly fun at times, but it’s also quite collected. With a nice, controlled sense of escalation, the film builds upon its sparse plot developments without ever feeling superfluous. There’s not a whole lot to “Dredd” when it comes to plot or characters, but Travis embraces that and sprinkles in a lot of cool flourishes, such as Paul Leonard-Morgan’s Carpenter-esque synth score.

Lean, buttoned-down, and riotously violent action movies with a genuine sense of direction (as opposed to just sheer disorientation) are a rare breed these days. “Dredd” qualifies as one of those, and, while it still may not be the most faithful of adaptations, it does the property some justice.
 

DREDD © 2013 Lionsgate
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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