12 Sept 2012

Screen Time: DREDD

Cast: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Heady, Wood Harris
Director: Pete Travis
Runtime: 95 minutes
Cerificate: 18
Release Date:  7 September 2012

Matt C: Growing up in the UK as an avid comics reader you'd think it would automatically make me a Judge Dredd fanboy, but due to what I guess you could call the hand of fate, Marvel UK ensnared me first with their output (the Secret Wars reprints being the real deal clincher) and consequently 2000AD passed me by as a formative reading experience. I was obviously aware of it, and how it acted as a breeding ground for some of the now creative powerhouses in the US industry, but the single story format of American comics became my preferred choice, rather than the anthology approach utilized by 2000AD, and in all honesty the colourful antics of the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four appealed to my sensibilities more than my perceived view of Dredd as a one-dimensional dystopian psychopath. Reading Dredd stories since has confirmed that my assumption was a bit off the mark, but having not grown up with the character, a solid connection with him never really established itself.

Still, I can't deny the powerful iconography of the mythos created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra back in 1977 (and embellished by many other top talents since) so I didn't really need convincing to take a trip to the local multiplex for a viewing of Dredd. A few things weren't in its favour, causing expectations to be (probably unfairly) lowered. There were rumours of discord between director Pete Travis, producer Andrew MacDonald and writer Alex Garland during production, but they've since been denied and besides, difficulties in the production process don't automatically mean a movie will be a failure (Apocalypse Now springs immediately to mind as a prime example). Secondly, Dredd's initial cinematic outing in Danny Cannon's 1995 Judge Dredd was a disaster on a number of levels, from the decision to have Sly Stallone remove the trademark helmet for the majority of the movie to the introduction of Rob Schneider as comedy sidekick. Fortunately, having seen it only once a long time ago, my brain seems to have trashed all memory of it, so I could approach this new film afresh. Finally, and most unfortunately, the plot for Dredd bears a striking resemblance to the superior Indonesian action flick The Raid, released earlier this year (and contender for best film of 2012), as they both feature cops locked down and fighting for their lives in tower blocks controlled by drug kingpins. On the surface there is some overlap (and as both films would have in front of the cameras at roughly the same time it’s obviously just a coincidence) but luckily there's enough to differentiate them once you dig a little deeper.

That's not to say there's a lot of depth to the film as the low-budget efficiency and enclosed narrative don't allow much in the way of character development (Olivia Thirlby's psychic Judge Anderson is the only member of the cast awarded an arc). This isn't a major issue though as Dredd is rightly portrayed as a force of nature, the premier Judge who displays a level of baddassery that's cinematically comparable to the likes of Wolverine and the Man With No Name. Any reservations anybody ever had about Karl Urban's suitability for the role are quickly dispelled as he perfectly captures the character’s gruff, no-nonsense persona, and considering he never removes his helmet and is essentially left to act with his mouth an chin (set to grimace mode throughout) its surprising just how effective he is and conveying Dredd’s relentless determination without the audience ever seeing his eyes.
The budget limitations means it's not an effects heavy flick, and Travis and his team opt for intensity rather than extravagance, so bar a few external scenes showing the futuristic  Mega-City One the action is kept claustrophobic and extremely brutal. It's actually quite refreshing, after studios have been constantly chasing the PG-13 rating in recent years, to have a sci-fi film that is unapologetically violent - heads explode and limbs are severed with gleeful abandon, reminding you of the halcyon days of the late '80s/early ‘90s when Hollywood poured big budgets into sci-fi extravaganzas where characters were regularly eviscerated in a spray of bullets (there's even what I assume is an intentional nod to Robocop in here).

It may not stray too far from predictability (Dredd is just too damned tough to ever really give the impression that he’s completely out of his depth) but the murky cinematography, pulsating score and taut editing help to rack up the tension throughout. It’s a brutally efficient sci-fi thriller that holds the attention like a vice. Kind of like Judge Dredd himself. 8/10


boo said...

here here! great review.

Aero said...

not only is there a gleeful abandon of fast violence but also a sprinkling of intensly slo-mo mesmerising beautiful violence.

Dan O. said...

Very fun and bloody, which makes it all the more entertaining and I can only wonder what they will do with the next installments of this series, if they can get there. Good review Matt.