Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Dredd

In Dredd, a futuristic cop/jury/executioner/JUDGE with the improbable name of Dredd takes a psychic rookie under his wing—and into a deadly fortress controlled by vicious killers who are somewhat reluctant to allow the judges to escape alive. Surrounded on all sides by death, they're about to discover that the only thing they can count on…is each other. And bullets. Thousands and thousands of bullets.

I'm by no means a comic book nerd, or even dilettante. This means that, though I've long been aware of Judge Dredd's graphic-novel origins, my personal understanding of the character is limited to the Stallone version and a few glimpses of the scowling comic version of Dredd. Casting-wise, Karl Urban's definitely an improvement; his scowl is more consistent and believable than Stallone's…pout? grimace? Let's just say "Stallone-face."

To my surprise, though, the new Dredd is in some ways less satisfying than the campier (and quite dated) Stallone version. There's no social commentary at all, which is distressing when your hero is such a blatant fascist. (The Stallone version at least had a little, if I remember right, but maybe that's just me projecting.) The story here has a much more limited scope—nearly everything takes place in one mega-slum with the lovable name "Peachtree"—and while that's conducive to head-bustin', wall-smashin' action (a goal Dredd attains), I for one like my sci-fi actioners with a bit more world-building. Maybe I'm an aberration on this. After all, I liked Chronicles of Riddick slightly more than Pitch Black (though, admittedly, the former went a little too far down the world-building path, as if to make up for the latter's glaring lack).

The world of Dredd is basically a post-apocalyptic hellscape where all surviving Americans live in the filthy and overcrowded Mega-City One (on the eastern seaboard) because the rest of the continental U.S. is irradiated. Okay, fine, but what strange sort of disaster would affect every inch of land besides Boston, New York, and D.C.? Even a phrase in the script about some kind of "nuclear shield" would have helped here. (It's also mildly distracting that this film that's supposed to be about America very obviously isn't American, from the film stock to the accent goof Urban commits with the very first line of narration.)

What little worldbuilding we do get is economical, understated, and effective. I liked the presentation of the judge characters, the major criminal characters, and a lot of the design. This is a more realistic, near-future-looking Mega-City One than Stallone's; Peachtree looks like one of the more mundane buildings from Blade Runner. And, pleasingly, much of the exterior footage is actually lit, unlike so many grim sci-fi settings where the sun seems to have been permanently blocked out (I guess Mr. Burns really gets around).

Anyway, since movie seems to exist mainly as an action-sequence delivery system, maybe it should be evaluated largely on that. Here, too, I was a little let down. It's not at all terrible—and the camera isn't super-shaky, thank goodness—but more imaginative fight scenes might have helped it stand out from any number of more mundane shoot-'em-ups. Considering the setting, a judge should be pretty much a one-man army, maybe with some fly tae-kwon-do skills or Batarangs or something. It's possible my perception is distorted because I already saw The Raid: Redemption, which has a similar setting and structure to Dredd but unrepentantly kicks its ass in terms of action. (Even the surprising amount of gore in Dredd was more fake-looking and less cringe-inducing than that of The Raid.)

Where Dredd impressed me was the acting and characterization. Urban seems born for the role, and conveys a surprising amount of nuance (and even occasional humor) considering you never once see his eyes. Olivia Thirlby plays the rookie partner—the movie's basically about her character arc—and she has some pretty good moments. Lena Headey is as chilling as one might expect as the villainous Ma-Ma. At no point does anyone, even the supporting cast, strike the sorts of false or ill-fitting performance notes that can hurt immersion in a fantastical setting like this. So, advantage Dredd: no Rob Schneider.

But I keep thinking about the limited stakes of the plot. Everything Dredd presents about this futuristic society, and its attitude toward human life, suggests that Peachtree could have been nuked from orbit twenty minutes in and it wouldn't make much difference to any of the characters. That makes it even more difficult to care about this unpleasant world and its brusque, perpetually-helmeted "hero." Just because he's kick-ass doesn't mean we inherently support him—which makes me wonder if this is one of those "by fanboys, for fanboys" films, and if that's true, how much more common that worrisome cinematic trend might become.

In a dark future where no summer action tentpole makes any sense unless you've read the entire backlog of comics…

Star Score: 3 out of 5

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