Monday, September 24, 2012

DREDD 3D Is Uber-Satisfying, Old-School Badassery

DREDD 3D Review:

- I've never seen the Stallone version of Judge Dredd. Never wanted to - no interest. And yet, I always thought that Judge Dredd - the character - was cool. I wasn't super familiar with the Judge Dredd comics - most in America aren't. But I dug the look, and I was drawn to the bits and pieces of the post-apocalyptic mythology I had picked up as a kid reading Wizard magazine. I knew that some of my favorite writers and artists - guys like Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Brian Bolland - had cut their teeth working on the Judge's comic-strip adventures over the years, in the pages of Britain's 2000 A.D. magazine. In fact, I had heard so much about the legacy of the venerable publication that, during my semester studying in London during college, I made sure to pick up a couple of issues of 2000 A.D. to see what the fuss was all about. I knew instinctively way back when that the Stallone film had little to do with the gritty, darkly satirical vision of the Dredd comics. And so I hoped that this new adaptation would live up to the legend of one of the UK's most popular fictional badasses. And man, rarely has there been a more purely satisfying big-screen comeback than DREDD. The film delivers kickass action while maintaining a perfect tone of grim sci-fi mixed with pitch-black humor. The result is the kind of unapologetic B-action flick that would make the likes of John Carpenter proud - not to mention Dredd's creators.

First off, Karl Urban as Judge Dredd is just, well, definitive. The man becomes and is Judge Dredd - it's that simple. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see an egoless comic-book performance like this one, with no considerations except making Dredd as badass and true-to-the-books as possible. Dredd's helmet STAYS ON for the entire movie. Urban acts through his scowling mouth, his jutting chin, and his body language. And he does a great job of it - and the integrity of the character is maintained. I'd liken the performance to Ron Perlman as Hellboy or, most recognizably, to Peter Weller as Robocop. There's no pandering to a mainstream audience, no movie-poster-ready glamour shots. Urban is Dredd, Dredd is Urban, and he nails the gravelly hero voice to an extent that Christian Bale should be taking lessons from him. 'Nuff said.

I also, somewhat surprisingly, thought that Olivia Thirlby was fantastic as Psy-Judge Anderson. In part, it's because the movie is very clever about how it uses her. For one, I'll backtrack for a second and say - thank the gods, this is NOT a Judge Dredd origin movie. The movie wisely realizes that we don't need Dredd's origin - he is a sci-fi Man With No Name, and Dredd stories are more about the world that Dredd finds himself caught up - the world that he's a product of - than the man himself. But, you still want interesting characters for him to play off of - and that's where Anderson comes in. This is, in some ways, her origin story. She is the one who has an actual character arc in the film, and it's fun to see her start out as a somewhat naive, nervous rookie - made a Judge due to her potent psychic abilities - and watch as she adapts to the violence and kill-or-be-killed environment she finds herself in. Thirbly does a great job with the role, pulling off the movie's tone to a T, and working well with Urban. I'll also mention Lena Heady - best known these days from Game of Thrones - who is a lot of fun as Ma-Ma (yep), the scarred drug queen who is the film's chief villain.

The movie, overall, does a nice job of just sort of throwing you into the world of Judge Dredd. The world is quickly established: post-nuclear world war, the U.S. is a burnt-out husk of its former self. The surviving populace lives in the confines of vast mega-cities, often in towering, enclosed constructs called Blocks (in a bit if dark humor, each Block - no matter how decrepid and horrible - has a fluffy name ... the main Block in this film, for example, is known as Peach Trees). Throughout the mega-cities, justice is dispatched by a police force known as the Judges. Armored to the teeth, the Judges were created to deal with the lawlessness and anarchy of the new world, by being granted the rights of policeman, judge, jury, and executioner. In Mega City One, the most legendary of all the Judges is Judge Dredd. And that's all the back-story you really need to know.

In this particular tale, Dredd and the rookie Anderson infiltrate Peach Trees to investigate a series of drug-related deaths, linked to the criminal Ma-Ma. In a bid to take out the Judges, Ma-Ma puts Peach Trees on lockdown, and sets out to hunt down and eliminate Dredd and Anderson. Suddenly, a simple investigation turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse, with the odds, certainly not in the Judges' favor.

It's a very simple story, and yes, there are some structural similarities to The Raid from earlier this year. But I wouldn't bother comparing the two too much. While The Raid is nonstop Hong Kong-style action, Dredd is more in the mold of classic Carpenter - more methodical and atmospheric, with a hefty dose of satire. And honestly, that's one of the best things about the film. It oozes that dark, bleak, pitch-black humor that the character is known for. Think Robocop. Think the kind of hard-R ultraviolence that typified the great 80's action flicks. Think the kind of dark dystopia that they just don't do anymore, the kind from before it was all about teens with bows and arrows. Yep - DREDD is a timewarp back to the glory days of 2000 A.D., Escape From New York, Robocop, and the like. The great techno soundtrack is the icing on the cake. As is the wryly funny script from Alex Garland - who wrote great modern horror/sci-fi flicks like 28 Days Later and Sunshine for Danny Boyle.

Complaints? Some it boils down to what were probably budgetary limitations. I wished that Mega City One looked a little more sci-fi and a little less like downtown LA. I wish we got a little more sense of scope and scale - some more imagery of the larger world of the film. To that end, the set design occasionally feels a little bland. Especially given how well they nailed the costumes and the look of the characters (impossibly, the Judge helmets look awesome), it would have been nice to have the locations feel just as pitch-perfect for this world. I also felt like Pete Travis' direction, while solid, relied a bit too much on some hoaky slo-mo bits for added drama. It all sort of ties in to the fact that the drug Ma-Ma is peddling induces a slow motion-like effect on its users ... but I still thought it was overused and a bit gimmicky. Same goes for the 3D - there were a handful of kewl in-your-face moments, but mostly, it seemed unnecessary. And with a darkly-lit movie like this, the 3D again seemed to make things unnecessarilly blurry and unfocused. Overall though, Travis does solid work, and he makes sure that the movie has a couple of great "oh $#@&!" moments that serve as great payoffs to the building intensity of the narrative.

DREDD in and of itself may not be an action masterpiece, but it's pretty startling how much it gets right, even in the face of obvious budget limitations. It 100% made me want sequels that get bigger and crazier and give us more exploration of the world of Mega City One and beyond. Honestly though, the biggest compliment I can give the film is that it finally made me realize the cool-factor of the characters and the world I admired from afar way back when. After watching the movie, I logged on to Amazon and purchased some 2000 A.D. collections - I was on a Dredd kick and eager to see where it all started. You can't ask for much more from a movie like this than that. And I think that's why old-school action fans should run out to support this legitimately badass comic book flick.

My Grade: B+

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