Thursday 27 June 2013

Dredd [2012]

DREDD is sci-fi action movie that was directed by Pete Travis and originally released in July 2012.  A British / South African co-production, it stars Karl Urban as the titular badass, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris (from THE WIRE, playing another drug dealer) and, er, well that's pretty much it in terms of people anyone's heard of.  Unless you had a traumatic brain injury in 1976 or you're one of those sniffy types who wouldn't be caught dead reading comics, you'll be familiar to some degree with the central character Judge Dredd.

He's been around a long time has Dredd and despite his huge popularity (at least in the UK - I don't know how successful the comics have been overseas) he has thus far steadfastly refused to become the movie franchise superhero that various producers have dreamed of.  Up until last year, only one movie had made it to screens at all: Danny Cannon's shiny but basically shite JUDGE DREDD [1995], starring Sylvester Stallone.  So underwhelming was it that it all but killed Cannon's movie career and frightened studios off the character completely.

Karl Urban as Judge Dredd
So what of this second attempt?  Well, the first thing to say is that it is significantly better than the previous one.  It's much darker, much less frivolous and doesn't have Rob Schneider in it.  The second thing to say is that Karl Urban is an infinitely better Dredd than Stallone was.  I kind of got that impression with Stallone that he regarded himself as the hero and that Dredd was merely a costume that he happened to be wearing in the movie.  That's not the case with Urban who, by virtue of doing less, makes Dredd come alive as a character - this is the Dredd who I remember from when I was a kid.  There are still one or two attempts to humanise him that I could have lived without but the point is that Urban serves the character, not the other way around.

Mega City One
Unfortunately, I had some problems with the rest of it.  I reckon the decision to limit the action to one tower block, excuse me, mega block, was a big mistake.  Leaving aside the fact that it immediately invites comparison with not only all the other tower block movies that have been made in the last 12 months but also DIE HARD [1988], such a decision effectively ignores the 30-odd years of incredibly detailed lore that has built up around Mega City One.  You're telling me that the best idea they could come up with out of all that was one tower block?  For the entire movie?  That's painfully unimaginative.

Lena Headey as MaMa
Similarly, given all the fantastically bizarre perps Dredd has come up against over the years I find it hard to believe that a sadistic drug dealer was the best option the film-makers could have gone for.  Lena Headey tries her best as MaMa but the character is so underwritten it's untrue, and indeed she's off screen for most of the movie.  It might have been better to not have a chief baddie at all and instead go for a faceless army, as in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 [1976] a film which DREDD in some ways resembles.

Broadwater Farm.  Sorry, Peach Trees tower block
In making these choices, it seems that a conscious decision must have been taken somewhere along the line to try to make Mega City One less fantastic and more realistic, more familiar, more believable.  Well that has been achieved but with the result that it now seems like a not too far distant vision of some of our planet's more deprived cities.  Which makes it depressing.  Very depressing in fact.  The problems that beset Mega City One are not the fantastically exciting comic strip problems of 2000AD but drug dealing, over-crowding, corruption, gang warfare, endemic crime and violence.  I said earlier that I though the film was less frivolous than the Stallone version, and it is, but it's gone too far the other way.

MaMa enjoys some Slo-Mo - these sequences are stunningly beautiful
In itself that might not have been such a drawback - after all an incredibly grim vision of the future didn't stop CHILDREN OF MEN [2006] being a terrific movie.  But when your hero is essentially a fascist's wet dream it spells trouble.  I say that because we all know - or at least those of us intelligent and humane enough to be left-wing know - that the solution to none of those problems listed above is 'letting the police kill everything in sight'.  Now I know it's a comic book character, and I know it's an action movie, but with the way things seem to be going at the moment around the world - with human rights being curtailed, police thuggery, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer - I'm just not in the mood to see what is effectively a masked copper in riot gear indulge in extra judicial murder.  I see quite enough of that on the news thanks.

Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson
So I think that is why, in the end, I'd have to say I didn't like DREDD. It does a lot of things right: it's undeniably exciting and some of the technical aspects are quite brilliant, especially the sound design and the beautiful, dream-like Slo-Mo drug sequences.  But it suffers from the gloating sadism that marrs so many action films these days and, unforgivably, reduces one of the great comic book characters to merely one of the participants in what is, ultimately, just another running, jumping and shooting movie.  It'll have to do in the meantime, but the definitive Judge Dredd movie is yet to be made.

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