Saturday, April 13, 2013
Random Movie Report: Dredd
In a year full of overlooked films, Dredd is an especially dear casualty. As an attempt to finally do cinematic justice to a British comics legend, it's an unqualified success, but nobody saw it (myself included) and the potential for an entire series of films about everyone's favorite fascist brute force weapon remains unrealized. Perhaps the spectre of the bloated 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle looms too large over the franchise, though frankly I'd be surprised if that many people remembered it. Dredd is a leaner beast, its low budget guiding the filmmakers into a straightforward raid story that, as it unfolds, allows for some pointed but subtle commentary and moments that are downright mystical.
In the future, most of the world is scorched and radioactive- a Cursed Earth which the people hide from in Mega Cities, sprawling urban megalopolises dominated by giant housing blocks which exist as small arcologies. Crime is rampant, and fighting it is a task largely delegated to the Judges, elite police officers empowered to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is a legendarily ruthless and incorruptible judge, assigned to monitor would-be Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thrilby), whose relative lack of ruthlessness is made up for by her psychic abilities. The two are called to one of the blocks to investigate a gangland slaying, and find that the entire monolithic structure is under the control of "Ma-ma" (Lena Headley), a gang leader who is the sole distributor of SloMo, a drug that turns the user's world into a slow, glittering spectacle. When Dredd and Cassandra find a witness to the murders, Ma-ma puts the building on lockdown, trapping everyone inside. She instructs the civilians to shut their doors and not help anyone, and then she sends her death squads out on the hunt.
There's an admirable simplicity in the premise; rather than try and delve into all the messy parts of the setting created over years in the pages of 2000 A.D., the movie pares it down to the Aristotelian unities- one day, one place, one case to solve. But the simplicity is deceptive; this single conflict exposes the workings of a desperate society, allowing just enough time for the people of the block to come into focus as men and women caught in the middle of a war. It honestly recalls much of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, in that the people of Mega City One see little difference between the gangs and the judges, two armies in a war that's destroying their homes. Anderson's psychic powers allow the audience to get a few closer looks at the people in this war, and every bit of collateral damage stings a little.
What's remarkable is that the film manages to balance these ambiguities with a genuine desire to see the good guys win. Dredd himself was subject to several shifts in the comic pages- the great irony of the character is that he was conceived as a satire of British police brutality, but the same juvenile readers who had no respect for real cops started rooting for Dredd, and there are many stories in which his rigid adherence to the law is viewed as positive in comparison to the corruption surrounding him. The film recognizes this scope, and Urban's Dredd, while never truly warm or accessible, is also not repulsive. He's not a sadist- he doesn't revel in the brute enforcement of the law, he just does it. Anderson is your classic idealist put to the test, but Thrilby's performance is a potential breakthrough (or rather it would be one if anyone had seen the goddamn film) and turns a typical good cop/bad cop dynamic into something genuinely compelling. It helps that when all is said and done, the drug dealers are clearly a bit worse than Dredd and Anderson, and we want to see them brought down even as we recognize the damage and death the pursuit of this goal causes.
This is also just a really good action film, smartly directed and with some incredible use of space. Despite taking place almost entirely in a gray brutalist slum arcology, the movie looks gorgeous, and there's a particularly memorable sequence involving a set of gatling guns that demonstrates just how far Ma-ma will go to protect her racket. There are a few sequences where we see the effects of SloMo, and they're gorgeous (I really regret not seeing this film in 3-D.) Similarly stylish are Anderson's psychic forays, appropriately disorienting without being irritatingly so.
Dredd is hopefully destined for a cult following, because it's as successful an adaptation of the comic character as one could hope for. It's spare but satisfying, which is probably for the best as I can't imagine anyone else tackling the material in movie form for at least another twenty years. I'd like to be proven wrong, but the work stands alone quite beautifully.
Based on characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra
Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Pete Travis