TROUBLE CITY

Movie Curiosities: Dredd

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Okay, time to do some catching up. When I first saw the trailer for Dredd, I was intrigued right off the bat for one reason and one reason only: It hit all the boxes. A reboot of an existing franchise? Check. Billed as "gritty" and "dark?" Check. An adaptation of existing material? Check. Filmed in 3D? Check. But here's the kicker: Not only does this film include slow-motion action sequences (another box checked), slo-mo was actually integrated into the premise. Just think about that. As if it wasn't enough that The Matrix and 300 made speed-ramping ubiquitous, now we have a movie in which speed-ramping is a tangible thing that drives the plot forward! I was honestly struck dumb with disbelief that we had reached this point.

In every visible way, this film bore all the hallmarks of your standard Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, if you asked me to pick one film as a symbol of what CGI action spectaculars are like at this exact moment in time, I could scarcely come up with a better answer. Throw in a premise that sounded oddly like another action film released this year, and I was ready to write the film off as a mediocrity that pulled from other, better movies.

But then the reviews came in. Terrible box office returns notwithstanding, my friends and favorite critics were all singing this film's praises. It almost made me sorry to be out of town during the film's opening weekend.

Anyway, I've now had a chance to see Dredd, and I'm glad to say that it didn't disappoint. For the most part.

Before going any further, I should point out that contrary to my first impression, this film does indeed vary from the standard blockbuster mold in two important ways. To start with, the film was budgeted at $50 million. Compared to the hundreds of millions that get sunk into your average tentpole film, that's miniscule. However, the film does compensate for this lack of funding in some very clever ways. Foremost among them is the set design.

This movie is set in a 200-story tower called "Peach Trees," and not all of its floors are residential. As the movie progresses, we're taken through a hospital, a school, a theater, and an outdoor playground, in addition to various stores and banks. Basically, the filmmakers didn't have the money to show us around the massive Mega-City One (it takes up the space between Washington D.C. and Boston, according to the opening voice-over), so they did the next best thing: They showed us a tower that's essentially a city in itself. And then they showed a skyline featuring untold hundreds of similar towers, with the implication that they're all as massive and varied as Peach Trees. In this way, the movie takes on an epic feel by way of a simple microcosm. Brilliant.

As long as I'm going on about the set design, let's talk about this movie's greatest strength: The visuals. To start with, Peach Trees is basically a massive slum, and the movie makes sure we know it. The whole tower looks degraded, disrepaired, and generally forgotten by anyone with the power and money to fix it. Even so, the film isn't overwhelmed by gritty browns and greys. On the contrary, the film is loaded with prominent reds and yellows and greens. Never in my life have I seen a movie that looked so grungy and yet looked so colorful. I didn't even know that was possible, but here we are.

Then we have the movie's special effects, easily the greatest of which are the slow-motion sequences. See, the "slo-mo" drug doesn't just slow down time, but it affects perception in other ways as well. Even the faintest dust motes and tiniest water droplets become perfectly visible. The users see lights and colors that aren't normally in the visible spectrum. Not only is everything slowed down, but everything is simply dazzling to look at. The film treats us to several POV shots of slo-mo use, and they're all so intoxicating that I had no problem understanding the drug's appeal.

As for the slow-motion itself, I was again blown away. I've seen slow-motion in use many times before (we all have), but this was something else. When people on slo-mo are getting caught in an action sequence, it's mind-boggling how the camera captures the waves and ripples of their flesh. I haven't seen anything like it outside of Jackass 3D, and I mean that as a huge compliment.

This brings me to the second way in which this movie is unlike most other blockbusters: Its rating. Most big-budget films try to appeal to the greatest number of people by way of a PG-13 rating, but not Dredd. No, this movie is R-rated for a damn good reason. Though I've certainly seen gorier movies, this one's commitment to ultraviolence is very impressive. The blood flies fast and thick in this picture. Countless people die, and not a one of them leaves a good-looking corpse. My favorite examples come near the start of the film, when three people are skinned alive and thrown off a 200-story balcony. We see the resulting corpses and they are gruesomely detailed.

Moving on from that delightful image, let's talk about Karl Urban in the role of Judge Dredd. To start with the obvious, it was considered a big deal in some fan circles that Dredd never takes off his helmet in this version. This was considered an immediate improvement over the 1995 Stallone adaptation (not to mention both Spider-Man film franchises), in which the title character constantly takes off his mask. Fans of the source material considered it an improvement because Dredd is never, ever seen without his helmet at any point in the character's long comic history.

Speaking as someone totally unfamiliar with the source material, I think that keeping the helmet on reinforces the notion that Dredd doesn't have a civilian life or a secret identity. For all intents and purposes, the helmet is his face. Dredd is nothing more or less than a Judge. That's all he is, that's all he knows, that's all he does.

Yes, the helmet does impede Urban's acting ability somewhat (the guy could only emote by way of his mouth and chin, after all), but it doesn't really make much difference. The character is so static that he doesn't need much emotion anyway. That's not to say the character is one-note, however. Dredd is presented with plenty of scenes that challenge him in some very interesting ways. I was very intrigued, for example, to watch Dredd react to the notion of corrupt Judges, which is another way this film manages to expand its scope on a limited budget.

However, my favorite example comes when Dredd is threatened by a couple of kids. By this point in the film, we've seen Dredd mow down hundreds of thugs for the crime of threatening a Judge, and here he is with a couple of harmless kids too proud to back out of a dare and too dumb to know any better. Watching Dredd's initial reaction is priceless, and I was genuinely interested to learn how things would play out.

Urban also makes it clear that there's a strict morality to this character, which does a lot to make this fascist murderer sympathetic. It also helps that Dredd is played with a very dark and dry sense of humor, without any of the wisecracks or one-liners you might expect from such an over-the-top action hero. Overall, Urban plays this character with such intelligence and single-minded ferocity that he remains entertaining to watch throughout the film.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for our bad guys.

The film's chief villain is Madelaine "Ma-Ma" Madrigal, played by Lena Headey. She's a former prostitute turned drug kingpin who managed to take over all of Peach Trees through brute force. Yet in spite of this colorful backstory, I simply couldn't get a handle on Ma-Ma. I couldn't find a single memorable thing about her aside from her scars and penchant for violence, neither of which are enough to stand out in this over-the-top movie. It's clear that Headey is trying so hard not to play the character as cartoonishly evil, and bless her for the effort. Still, without any pathos, humor, motivation, or gimmick of any kind to speak of, she was left grasping at straws.

An even worse case in point is Kay, played by Wood Harris. The man went from playing Avon Barksdale to playing one of Ma-Ma's henchmen, and that is not an upgrade. Again, it's obvious that the filmmakers didn't want Kay to come off as a two-dimensional bad guy, but Harris was given nothing to work with. The only notable thing about Kay is that he's a rapist, which -- again -- is not crazy enough to pass muster in this picture.

What makes Kay an even worse bad guy than Ma-Ma is the fact that he's so completely mishandled by the plot. At first, he's a hostage that Dredd and his companion (more on her later) have to drag along as they go through the tower. In theory, it's an interesting idea. In practice, it flat doesn't work. Though the character maintains full control of his faculties throughout, he doesn't say a word or make any attempt to escape until halfway through the film. Moreover, Kay needs to be kept alive for purposes of interrogation, which doesn't happen until an hour in despite the fact that it could have been done at any time. Why? Because the plot needed some kind of revelation (which isn't much of a revelation at all, really) at that exact moment.

Ma-Ma also has a right-hand man, but damned if I could tell you a single thing about him. Really, the only memorable villain in this whole movie is the twitchy guy running the tower's security (played by Domhnall Gleeson), but his status as a bad guy is somewhat debatable. Hell, the character doesn't have a name (he's only listed as "Clan Techie" in the credits), even though he easily has more noteworthy dialogue and plot impact than any other villain in this movie!

Last but not least is the film's wild card. Meet Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie Judge with prodigious psychic abilities. Anderson has psychic abilites because she was born in the radioactive wasteland outside Mega-City One, which made her a mutant. Like I said, this is a crazy movie.

On the one hand, I was very fond of the effects used to show Anderson's powers in action. Her interrogation scene with Kay, for example, was easily one of the most disturbing and creative sequences I've seen this year. There's also a very brief moment when Anderson uses her powers to get in Dredd's mind and look at the man beneath the mask. I sort of wish the filmmakers tapped more of that potential story point, though maybe it's better that they didn't.

Regarding Thirlby, I was honestly rather fond of her performance. She played a very nice balance, just vulnerable enough to make it clear that she's a rookie, yet strong and confident enough to make it clear she can fend for herself. It also helps that Anderson is shown to be very smart, both in her application of standard Judging protocols and in the use of her mind-reading abilities. The latter leads to an exchange in an elevator that I found particularly funny. Last but not least, Anderson's relationship with Dredd is strictly professional, without any hint of a romance arc. Given the characters we're dealing with, that was absolutely the right move to make.

Unfortunately, the strength of Thirlby's performance and Anderson's interplay with Dredd are something of a double-edged sword. See, Thirlby is allowed much more freedom to emote because she goes through so much of the film without her helmet. Anderson does offer a valid excuse for ditching the helmet -- it interferes with her psychic abilities -- though I personally feel that argument is trumped by Dredd's response. I should also add that if her mind-reading abilities are unimpeded in this film, I'd hate to see how easily she could be taken captive if she kept wearing the helmet.

With all of that said, my biggest problem with Anderson's character comes at the end. This character -- unlike Dredd -- develops in a very noticeable way as the film continues, but this arc utterly fails to stick the landing. Put simply, the arc feels incomplete. I saw the character's growth, yet I'm left with no idea what that growth amounted to. I've been racking my brain trying to find some purpose to Anderson's ending, either in terms of plot or theme, but I've got nothing that makes any sense. And that's about as much as I can discuss without going into spoilers.

Sadly, the bad storytelling isn't limited to Anderson. Yes, I know that this is a loud and dumb action movie, but there were some plot holes here that I couldn't bring myself to overlook. One example comes roughly halfway through the film, when an entire floor of the tower is so thoroughly destroyed that it should have brought the whole complex crushing down. But even that pales in comparison to the climax, when Dredd takes a bullet to the chest. You'd think that would be a huge deal, given how much this film has reveled in death and destruction up until this point. But no, Dredd is back on his feet and feeling fine with treatment from a medical kit. A medical kit that none of the other Judges seem to have. Sorry, but I'm putting a flag on that play.

Finally, I have to comment on the action sequences. As much as I loved the CGI effects and all the various weapons to make different kinds of explosions, the fight choreography left a bit to be desired. This is an especially big problem when multiple Judges come into play, as it's very hard to tell them apart without looking really close. I should also add that subpar fight choreography is a particularly huge problem for a film whose premise immediately brings up comparisons to The Raid: Redemption.

To wrap up, Dredd is a film that's all about the visuals. It's worth the price of admission just to see the creative and jaw-dropping slo-mo sequences, to say nothing of that awesome psychic showdown. The action is also marvelous, in large part because of how far this film was willing to go in depicting onscreen violence. Props are also due to the set design, which helped lend the movie an epic feel on a minimal budget. However, while the title character is undeniably awesome, the other characters are hit-or-miss, and there are bad storytelling choices throughout.

Basically, this is an action film that alternates between "creative," "gorgeous," and "stone stupid." If that sounds like your cup of tea and you're willing to pay the 3D premium (which should be considered mandatory for this movie), then definitely check this one out.

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