Monday, January 14, 2013

Movie Review: Dredd

I was really astonished by how much I liked Dredd. It gets so many things right.

I was superficially familiar with Judge Dredd from my time in a comic book store, but I was no fan by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not even sure if I ever read any of the books. I mostly just absorbed the information osmotically by virtue of being surrounded by them every day.

I almost missed seeing it. I'd been up since six in the morning and we had just returned from a game night when my buddy Tim started the movie at 1 AM. I was pretty exhausted, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

Now the Stallone "I ram de rarwall" Judge Dredd movie is infamously bad, but the 2012 version, while not perfect, manages to avoid the egregious unforced errors of the older movie.

The thing I admire most about it is its focus. Though the film has been criticized for omitting the satirical elements of the original, I think it gets much more right than it does wrong. There is no plucky comedy relief, no romantic sub-plot awkwardly shoehorned in.  It's bleak, it's dystopian, it's excessively hyperviolent, but it never flinches from any of this. Those aren't bugs, they're features.

I'm sick to death of origin story movies in comic book adaptations. Good God, do we really need another retelling of Superman's origin? He's one of the most recognizable figures on the planet. With Dredd, we get a short voice-over about the setting and a brief action sequence to give those unfamiliar with the setting a brief outline, and then we're off, with details being filled in over the course of the movie.

It's a training day movie, a day in the life movie. Once back at headquarters, Dredd is ordered by his commanding officer to take Anderson, a trainee judge out for a field evaluation.  This is a great scene for a couple of reasons.

Judge is played by Karl Urban. I like his take on Dredd. I'm going to lift this wholesale from the cast section of the Wikipedia article on the movie.  Producer Allon Reich described Dredd as "an extreme character, and he administers justice with an extreme lack of prejudice." Urban approached the producers about joining the film. He found the role challenging because the character never removes his helmet, requiring Urban to convey emotion without using his eyes. He viewed the character as an average man with an insanely tough job in a fragmenting society and likened Dredd's heroism to that of a fireman. The role also demanded physical preparation; Urban undertook intensive physical training to become a "beast of a man". He also underwent weapons and technical training to learn how to operate under fire, how to arrest criminals and breach doors. He insisted on performing his own motorcycle stunts for the film. He played Dredd with a raspy and harsh vocal tone akin to "a saw cutting through bone", which he found difficult to sustain.

That nails it! I think one of the few shortcomings of Nolan's Batman movies was Bale's incomprehensible asthmatic Hamburgler voice, and while the sound of Urban's Dredd is broadly similar in execution, it couldn't be more different in what it conveys. Bale sounded like he was trying; Urban just made it seem that's what Dredd sounded like.

I liked that they kept Dredd's commanding officer as a woman. (An African-American woman no less.) I remember that Robocop was set in Detroit and had something like three black people in the whole movie. Dredd has people of both genders and all races across all different strata of society.

And the final piece of the intro is Olivia Thirlby as Cassandra Anderson. I occasionally complain that it's kind of predictable to name your psychic "Cassandra", but Dredd has been around long enough that the their Cassndra gets grandfathered it, because they were doing it before EVERYONE was doing it.

Thirlby is great. I didn't recognize her at first, despite having watched the first season of Bored to Death just the other week. She gives the kind of performance that one just doesn't find in this kind of movie. She's emotive, she's understated, her character is inexperienced, but not stupid. She really seems like a bright young go getter who really wanted to make a difference. In X-Men 3, the dye job on Famke Janssen was so bad that it was distracting, but the work with Thirlby's hair was great, because her hair looked natural, in that it looked like it belonged with a person of her skin tone.

Dredd takes Anderson on patrol with him. They execute a drug bust and find evidence that one of the perps they capture was involved in an earlier murder, so they take him into custody. Unfortunately, he's the henchman of Madelaine Madrigal (Ma-Ma) and she locks down the tower and this is the meat of the movie, with her goons trying to hunt down the two judges in an enclosed space.

As it has been said, the audience will hate a good villain, but love a great one, and we get a great villain in Ma-Ma.She just seems so weary, so resigned. I hadn't read the following until after I had finished the movie, but after reading it, it helped me realize what I realized about Lena Headey's performance, but couldn't articulate.

Again from Wikipedia.Headey said: "I think of [Ma-Ma] like an old great white shark who is just waiting for someone bigger and stronger to show up and kill her ...  she’s ready for it. In fact, she can't wait for it to happen ... She's an addict, so she's dead in that way, but that last knock just hasn't come."

And while I think he was somewhat overshadowed by the other performances, Wood Harris as Kay, Ma-Ma's goon.  Harris described the character as a villain, but one that sees himself as no worse than the Judges. Harris said: " ... Dredd goes around literally judging and killing people if they do wrong ... Anyone who goes against the system might end up the bad guy. So I think Kay has justified fighting that in his mind."

I like movies where even the minor characters have reasons for doing what they were doing and I can completely buy that explanation.  I love the details that help sell it as a real world. The Snuff Box theme in the computer room!  Snuff box!

The only thing I didn't like was the climax, where they go to confront Ma-Ma, and she puts on this transmitter that will trigger a bunch of explosives and kill everyone in the complex if her heart stops. She thinks she's going to parlay this into a ticket out of there. But the device seems to function in a rather circumspect fashion. Rather than the explosives going off if the receiver fails to detect her heartbeat, they will detonate if there as an affirmative transmission that her heart has stopped beating. Not only is the way that it was actually set up much easier to circumvent, but it seems harder to do anyway.

But Dredd, for some reason has a hunch that her failsafe works in the counter intuitive way that it actually does, and he has the additional hunch that it has an extremely limited range, so he throws her 200-stories down where it can't send its kill signal. The logical thing to do would be to pump her full of the stun rounds he used a couple scenes earlier and just carry her out of there in case she wasn't bluffing, but instead we get a scene that, while visually striking and providing a narrative parallel to events that had happened earlier, nevertheless, doesn't make much sense.

Despite that, it's a really good movie. It's very narrow in its focus, and unapologetic about what it is, and succeeds outstandingly in being that.

Karl Urban did a great job acting with his chin. Tim and I made our Dredd faces.

Tim's was pretty good, but mine makes me look like I'm a constipated duck.

1 comment:

  1. it's violent but it's slick, original and probably the closest thing to a live action comic book of Dredd you'll ever see.