Under the guidance of British filmmakers outside of the Hollywood meatgrinder there’s some excitement that the sophistication and intensity of the alterna-comic would translate better to cinema. Unfortunately good intentions go awry here, as Dredd suffers badly from dull heroes, dull villains, and an over confidence in its own cold, detached ultraviolence.
Dredd (2012) dir. Pete Travis
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris
By Alan Bacchus
It’s the near future and society has devolved into a kind of anarchy overridden with chaos and violence. In Mega-City home to 800 million folks (come on, 800million?!) crime is just too much to handle under any normal judication system. Thus is born the ‘Judges’ – crime fighters with the power of judge, jury and executioner. Dredd (Urban), like all the others, is hidden mostly by his facemask and his superhero costume. In this film he’s guiding a new recruit Judge Anderson (Thirlby) with the added power of ESP to read minds. Their mission, to restore order to a highrise complex ridden with criminals led by a sadistic drug lord Ma-Ma (Headey).
We’re in Robocop territory here but without the insightful technological or political metaphors which made Verhoeven’s film so memorable. Here, it’s a straight-ahead actioner and, curiously, with only mildly interesting gunplay choreography. Travis seems to revel in the grotesqueness of Ma-Ma’s sadism. The opening shows how she skins her enemies, pumps them up with the new psychdelic ‘slo-mo’ drug and throws them off the 200th floor of the high rise. The site of the bodies lying splattered on the ground with their faces smushed like roadkill seems to have taken up a lot of collective creative thought.
The main action involves Judges Dredd and Anderson trapped in highrise lockdown and hunted down by Ma-Ma’s minions. A perp Kay (Wood Harris, aka Amon Barksdale from The Wire) is carted around as a prisoner for much of time, resulting in lengthy conversations without action slowing the film down to a snail’s pace. When Dredd and Anderson find themselves split up it’s two sets of action for the two heroes, eventually linking up for a big confrontation with Ma-Ma.
Much care has been made to render Dredd for its adult comic fans. Excessive bloodletting is one of the main attractions, but unfortunately much of it is CG-enhanced and visibly so, a fantastical embellishment which takes the violence out of any kind of visceral realism. Thus it all feels as candy-coded and false as the Stallone version. So what’s the point? Writer Alex Garland, despite his experience with intelligent genre films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, litters the film with Stallone-like cliches and bad one-liners. The worst comes near the end when Dredd, shot and ready to be killed, makes his killer stop by saying, ‘wait’, which causes the gun-toting minion to pause, make a speech, then get blown away in the back conveniently by Dredd’s partner. Sorry for the detail, but believe me this is not a spoiler, only a warning to expect lazy set pieces like this.
Despite being reverential to the comic, covering Karl Urban’s face with his facemask, a point of conflict with fans in the original Stallone picture, adds no value to the picture. If anything it signifies his dull and uncharasmatic character. Same with Lena Headey’s apathetic villain who generates no fear or suspense. Even the machinehead Robocop bristled with ironic humour. Dredd is serious and reverential to a fault.
The highlight of the film is Anthony Dod Mantle’s colourful cinematography especially the visualization of heightened state of drug users. Other wise going all in on Dredd has the effect of us folding our cards.
Dredd is available on Blu-Ray in 2D and 3D via Alliance Films in Canada