Dredd (review)

Dredd yellow light Karl Urban

I’m “biast” (pro): loves me some Karl Urban
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I dunno much about Judge Dredd. I know he springs from a comic book series, I know he’s Judge Judy and executioner, and I know he never takes his helmet off. Forget the roughshodding of civil rights: it’s that last one that’s a major bummer. Because in this second attempt to bring Dredd to the big screen — we do not talk about the 1995 flick starring Sylvester Stallone — Dredd is played by Karl Urban, and he in fact never removes his headgear. This is the biggest crime committed by this generally meh-to-middling action movie. For it is a damn crying shame that Urban’s handsome face is mostly covered up the whole time.

Dredd — if you’re “lucky,” Dredd 3D — has some issues, it’s true. But not so many that I am uncomfortable making a joke at my own expense about how the film fails to service my fangirl needs. Cuz that’s part of the good, the clever, the intriguing in Dredd. For Urban — you remember him as Bones in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, and as Rider of Rohan Eomer in The Lord of the Rings — is still totally riveting with only his mouth and his manly, unshaven chin with which to express himself. (It’s funny how director Pete Travis — no, I’ve never heard of him, either — sometimes lets the camera linger on Dredd’s mouth the way, in another film, the camera might linger on a character’s eyes, in order to gauge his reaction to whatever has just befallen.) In a world where dumb action movies, as this one aspires to be but cannot bring itself to be quite entirely that stupid, are over-the-top and overexplained and overenunciated, there’s a surprising and gratifying minimalism to Dredd.

Of course, the minimalism works against Dredd in huge chunks, too. We’re in a future of unspecified futuricity, where most of the planet is an irradiated wasteland and yet the strip of civilization between the former Boston and Washington is one of the few places that remains livable. Say what? In what universe would the American Northeast not be the first region to get blasted into nuclear glass in a global conflict? (I mean, if you want to cripple the United States, you take out Washington and New York, no?) Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation for this, but we never hear it. If you can get past that, though, you can “enjoy” the hellish urban atmosphere of Mega City One, which stretches from the former Boston to the former Washington and is punctuated by enormous towers, 200 stories tall, housing the miserable remnants of humanity. And you can come along for a day in the life of Judge Dredd as he mops up the wicked and the evil, a day on which he just so happens to be assigned the task of evaluating rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby: The Darkest Hour, Solitary Man).

One thing that’s nice — for postapocalyptic values of “nice” — is that this society clearly has no problem with women doing nasty kickass vicious jobs like Judging, because we glimpse other women doing this work, too. (Though there’s a special reason why Anderson is getting a rookie tryout that I won’t spoil for you, cuz it’s kinda B-movie fun.) Or with women being violent crimelords who terrorize the proles and their minions with equal aplomb. For here we have Ma-Ma (Lena Headey [Game of Thrones, Sarah Connor Chronicles], who is awesome, as always), who rules the Peachtrees neighborhood, one of those massive 200-story structures, from her perch atop it, and is very very keen to take out the two Judges — that would be Dredd and Anderson — who have wandered it into on a seemingly routine call.

In some ways, this is like this year’s The Raid, which gave us present-day Indonesian kung-fu cops infiltrating a Jakarta highrise in order to take out the crimelord who runs it. But there’s more humanity in Judge Dredd, and more leeway for exploring issues of morality, thanks to its science-fictional setting that means we don’t have all the information we need to fully understand its world. There are small moments of unexpected poignancy here that challenge the dog-eat-dog postapocalyptic ethos we might be expecting. And there are startling moments that appear to subvert everything crappy action movies have taught us to anticipate from movies about badasses like Dredd: though he has the legal right to make instant judgments on the fly, Dredd refuses to execute, on the spot, a bad guy on “only” a 99 percent certainty that he’s guilty. I’m not sure I can articulate how much this one teeny-tiny moment rocked me, because Teh Movies have trained us to “know” that guys like Dredd shoot first and don’t even bother to ask questions later, they’re that certain of their rightness. It’s not even that Dredd is wavering or hesitating: it’s that the rules of his world are not the rules of our world, and we’re only learning them as we go.

This is the thing that is so fascinating about this Dredd: its protagonist is not a rogue cop, not a cop who’s off the reservation. He is (I think) a regular guy in a world that is different from our own in ways we don’t even realize we can’t anticipate because we’ve unconsciously brought contemporary expectations into the multiplex with us. Where Dredd falls down is in being this intriguing and then letting that intrigue dissipate because there’s no time to explore it in 90 quick minutes. This should be a 20-hour TV series, not a movie. This is Max Headroom meets Robocop, and there’s simply way too much stuff to explore and examine in that mashup. I mean, yeah, the 3D is blurry and painful to endure, but that’s not the real problem with Dredd. It’s that, for another example, it postulates a drug called slo-mo — which is what Ma-Ma is building her empire on — that slows down time for the user without explaining why anyone in this hellish world of misery and grime would want to make their lives pass slower. Oh, for certain, the movie gets at how forcing someone to take this drug before you torture them would make the torture worse. But, you know, this movie really needs a scene in which slo-mo makes it seem like an orgasm lasts longer. It needs a scene about how corporate-executive assholes are trying to use slo-mo to get more work out of desperate proles.

All of which is, I know, too much for a single movie. But Dredd, as it is, only makes slo-mo seem good as an excuse for making bloody splatter last longer. That’s not how it should be.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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