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Comic-Con '12 Review: 'Dredd' A Visually Strong, Engaging But Ultimately Empty Cinematic Experience

Reviews
by Todd Gilchrist
July 12, 2012 8:27 AM
18 Comments
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Remakes and reboots always seem to demand comparisons to their predecessors, but “Dredd” evokes a slightly different relationship: What Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” is to George Romero’s original, Pete Travis’ film is to, no, not Danny Cannon’s 1995 film “Judge Dredd,” but Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.” In both cases, gifted visual stylists took fertile, socially-conscious subject matter, pared out the cultural commentary, and left behind an engaging, if empty, cinematic experience. And for the most part, that works, although the abrupt ending of Travis’ film only highlights its thematic vacuousness, while Snyder’s bleak post-credits punchline successfully disguised it (at least at the time). Nevertheless, by far the better of the two cinematic interpretations of this particular character, “Dredd” is a video game procedural tied to great visuals, but one without deeper substance to make its experience remotely meaningful.

Karl Urban plays Judge Dredd, the most fearsome scowl in all of Mega-City One. After dispassionately “judging” (that means kill) a trio of drugged-out criminals, Dredd is handed a babysitting job by his superior: evaluate a comely recruit named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) whose tests are below par but whose psychic abilities make her too valuable to dismiss. On their first call, Dredd and Anderson respond to a triple homicide at Peach Trees, a housing project which has been overtaken by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) as a production facility for a new drug called Slo-Mo. But after they apprehend one of her foot soldiers, Kay (Wood Harris), for questioning, Ma-Ma shuts down the building and unleashes its denizens on the two Judges, putting them in a deadly struggle to escape with their suspect – and their lives – intact.

Fans of the character will be relieved to know that Dredd doesn’t face the sort of deconstructionist, deep-rooted moral struggle he was confronted with in Cannon’s film; from start to finish, the Judge retains his mostly implacable, gruff authority. Instead, screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) gives him a soupcon of humanity – not to mention humor – and then tests it incrementally both via his relationship with Anderson and his totalitarian attitudes about delivering justice. What works best about the duo’s dynamic is that Anderson isn’t a feeble-minded rookie, but a formidable companion whose skill set is simply different than Dredd’s. And when she introduces a few shades of grey into his black and white attitudes about crime and punishment, the transformation is rewardingly subtle.

At the same time, his transformation is never reflected in the larger ideas the film attempts to examine – mostly because it doesn’t seem like there are larger ideas. Anderson’s passing mention of her upbringing in a housing project like Peach Trees notwithstanding, the movie never pauses to contextualize their judgments, nor to contemplate the value – or danger -- of a totalitarian regime. When innocents are killed, they only matter as a justification for their killers’ eventual, bloody death at the hands of the Judges. All of which is, if not fine, then at least intentional for the vast majority of the film’s running time; “Dredd” dares its target audience not to embrace the carnage, and alternates just enough between “that’s horrible” and “that’s horribly awesome” to keep viewers from seriously contemplating the glib amorality with which it depicts the (in)significance of human life.

Perhaps understandably, it sounds like I really didn’t like the film, but “Dredd” mostly works on its own terms – even if they were probably written in crayon. Travis’ direction, augmented by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“127 Hours”), is remarkable and unique, lending the action a grisly but poetic feel; whether the Slo-Mo drug was the chicken or egg in the duo’s development of their visual style, it creates a sort of foundation for the speed and texture of the rest of the film, and looks absolutely stunning every time it’s used. Simultaneously, Travis and Mantle are liberal but judicious about the violence, never turning away from an opportunity to show Dredd or Anderson blow a hole in a perp, but also not quite doing it in a way that crosses a line from bleakly funny to just plain bleak.

As Dredd, Urban either has a better character to play than Stallone did, or simply has a better grasp on what makes him tick, but the actor continues to distinguish himself as a versatile performer who turns mimicry into emotional meaning. Following his turn as Bones in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” he demonstrates that he understands how and where the differences are between the silhouette of an iconic character and the actual substance. Meanwhile, Thirlby seems as if she’d be outclassed or simply under-weighted to play even a rookie cop, but the actress demonstrates she’s no shrinking violet, and more than holds her own next to Urban’s comparatively imposing frame. Her external resolve and her internal struggle feel well-calibrated, making Anderson feel like a natural part of the world of Mega-City One, even when she’s meant to serve as proxy for the audience’s doubts or questions about it.

Nevertheless, Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” and Verhoeven’s “Robocop” indulged in plenty of gratuitous violence and pure, sophomoric fun, and yet both films possessed a political and social consciousness that elevated their prurient charms. Within genre conventions, “Dredd” satsfies as a containment thriller, buddy cop movie and futuristic action gorefest; the performances are strong, the characters thoughtfully developed and the visuals beautifully executed. But if just asking the question “What was that film actually about?” is all that’s necessary to undermine the surface-level enjoyment of watching Urban and Thirlby fight their way out of a well-designed structure, why does it matter – not to mention, why should we care -- if they ever succeed? [B-]

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18 Comments

  • Matt Osborne | August 2, 2012 8:53 PMReply

    From this review, the movie sounds very faithful to the comic from which it's adapted. And the setting itself IS THE COMMENTARY: Mega City One is a caricature of the urban sprawl, commercialization, and social atomization of our present day social order.

  • Middenface | July 22, 2012 5:32 AMReply

    If you're asking “What was that film actually about?” then you're missing the point. Dredd doesnt need the social or political comentary, IT IS the commentary. It's about where Wagner and the other writers think we're going, its a fly on the wall view of the future, Dredd and the others are damaged individuals living a meaningless one dimensional existence in a bleak violent future because of what we are doing now and thats the point. Dredds version of law enforcement is the damaged psycotic child of our global politics and the (as Dredds creators see it) inevitable ruin of our planet and societies and liberties brought about by our present day conflicts and our leaders reactions to them and the controls that our leaders heap upon us every day in their attempts to control us, make us be pure be vigilant and behave and save us from ourselves, from the security at airports, to speed cameras and the sumary justice meted out to those caught by those cameras to the brutal repression of their own people by regimes in places like Syria and Iran (and the way that the 'free' west apes elements of that repression in order to protect us from the terrorists paid by the Iranians and others. All of this is heading towards Dredds world in the eyes of the people who created Dredd (as well as the chance to write in their own dark nasty dry humour). “What was that film actually about?” Carry on as we are and this is what life will be like for your grandchildren is what its about.

  • Instant Justice | July 14, 2012 8:34 AMReply

    I'd rather not be "moralised" at in films. The "point" is in the subtext of the entire film. I don't need someone to tell me the point at the end of those 90 minutes. This is not a Hollywood film that needs to spell things out. Film is both art and entertainment.

  • sanjuro | July 13, 2012 5:08 PMReply

    It is funny the first paragraph of the review mentions the Snyder's remake of "Dawn Of The Dead", which I think is very good partly because it lacks the ridiculous moralizing that Romero sticks into his zombie films.

    One problem with most American films is the necessity to insert a happy ending, or even on a more philosophical sense, social or metaphysical justice.

    Even Robocop, which obviously took cues from Judge Dredd down to the helmet visage, had the barest of a value system (not surprisingly, a European directed it). The villains had the most fun and the hero is property of a conglomerate trapped inside a robot body.

  • John | July 12, 2012 8:57 PMReply

    Olivia Thirlby looks so embarrassingly miscast in this thing. Kick-Ass was ridiculous so I could buy the silliness of that idea. But here, a puny child holding her own against bad guys - stupid. Very shocked to hear she "holds her own."

  • Eldo | August 30, 2012 7:31 PM

    The 'puny child' as you call her has just spent time training to be a judge in an overcrowded, nightmare of a city. She is also psychic which, you would agree, would be a benefit in a fight.

  • Mr Anonymous | July 12, 2012 1:05 PMReply

    I'm confused. You've called it 'A Visually Strong, Engaging But Ultimately Empty Cinematic Experience' yet you've given it a B- grade which is still pretty good. I would have expected with it being an 'Empty Cinematic Experience' the grade to be much worse. Other websites have been giving it glowing positive reviews yet yours is a downer. Curious.

  • Interpreter | July 12, 2012 1:12 PM

    I think this review is saying, "it looks cool and it's visually interesting, and if you're just into action, it pops n' shit" -- which is often good enough for most sites out there -- but at the end of the day it's kind of insubstantial with no depth. The difference between say The Raid and a Chris Nolan, Batman film.

  • StephenM | July 12, 2012 1:03 PMReply

    Yeah, I totally understand this review's point about theme and moral depth, but the film still sounds better than I expected, so. . .good!

  • adgy | July 12, 2012 12:07 PMReply

    If it's violent, has well developed characters, strong performances and beautiful visuals THEN THAT IS PERFECTLY OK WITH ME.

  • Appleby | July 12, 2012 10:15 AMReply

    I think Mr Moo has it spot on. Dredd is a character we see the Mega City 1 world through. Reading only a few of the comics you'll realise that his role doesn't represent humanity, he represents the system he works for. The supporting characters are there to reflect on the humanity of it all, even ourselves as the viewer. Todd Gilchrist should have checked out some source material passing his own judgement (no pun, I swear) on Dredd's character.

  • Mr Moo | July 12, 2012 9:39 AMReply

    I am a longterm reader of 2000AD. Got every issue.

    "But if just asking the question “What was that film actually about?” is all that’s necessary to undermine the surface-level enjoyment of watching Urban and Thirlby fight their way out of a well-designed structure, why does it matter – not to mention, why should we care -- if they ever succeed? "

    You're not meant to care about Judge Dredd, well, not in the conventional sense. He will arrest anyone that breaks any crime. You forget to pay your broadband connection, three months in the cubes!

    It's hard to like or "care" about the character -but that isn't the point, anyway. What fans care about is the story; they care about how Judge Dredd solves crimes, they care what sort of crazy perps and citizens he encounters. And most of all, they care that the story is written by John Wagner, or, if written by another writer - in this case, screenwriter, Alex Garland - it contains enough John Wagner elements:

    A) absurd humour

    B) imagination

    C) Intelligent story-telling

    and

    D) Judge Dredd portrayed as a cop of the future.

    He is not a bastard with a powerful handgun, he is a policeman of the future and it's imperative the new film shows that. He follows rules, procedures. He's not The Punisher with a license to kill.

    No Judge Dredd film will ever capture the full richness of the 2000AD version because that has developed over three decades. If the new film captures a slice, a moment, a day of life in the mad city of Mega-City 1 then it's done its job. :) Subject to decent box office, a richer storyline can be considered for a sequel.

  • Philip | August 8, 2012 7:49 PM

    An excellent analyis of who and what Dredd is and what the film is on about. Thank you for writing that.

    Fans of Judge Dredd will be very pleased with this film.

  • James | July 12, 2012 9:28 AMReply

    How does he see out of that helmet?

  • Sean | March 2, 2013 4:30 AM

    Of course it represents that sort of symbolism, but that wasn't the question. And it does matter a little, given the helmet is faithful to the progs, an Dredd's helmet was described doing all sorts of cool stuff (in the 70s and 80s). It's hardly out of the realm of discussion.

  • middenface | July 22, 2012 5:39 AM

    It doesnt matter, the helmet represents blind faceless law enforcement (not justice - to be just you cant be blind).
    read the dark judges, as Dredd is a view of the ultimate logic of where we are going, so Judges Death, Fire and Mortice with their all crime is comited by the living so life is a crime represents the ultimate direction of Dredds world. So he doesnt need to see out of the helmet

  • Mark Zhuravsky | July 12, 2012 9:24 AMReply

    Excellent review Todd! This definitely bolsters my desire to catch "Dredd" in theaters, but perhaps on a matinee morning.

  • Stan | July 12, 2012 9:22 AMReply

    I have not seen it yet but from reviews and newsfeeds I'd say they have hit the button spot on. Better the devil you know but I would say they have it spot on from the trailer and at the end of the day it's a low budget flic that is trying to make a impression of DREDD and his world so see what happens in the sequels etc. I really appreciate the fact that its independent and hope it does well as it takes some stones to make a movie on the budget they were given and lets not forget only fans of JD know the actual character having grown up with him in real time and weather or not people will make of the movie being new to Dredd will be the butter on the toast. Ta Ta

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