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Review: Dredd (2012)

Dredd (2012)

Directed by: Pete Travis

Premise: An adaptation of the British comic book series 2000 AD. Set in a future in which law enforcement officers are judge, jury, and executioner, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) takes a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) into a vertical housing structure on a routine police call but they find themselves fighting an entire crime syndicate.

What Works: Dredd intends to be a hardnosed action film, a futuristic Dirty Harry, and as that it succeeds. This is a siege film like Die Hard or Black Hawk Down and so the focus is on the action. The story is minimal and the film gives its two lead characters the simple goal of staying alive while working their way to the top of the structure in which the crime boss (Lena Headey) resides. Along the way the action comes steadily with Dredd and his trainee fighting their way up the housing structure and the film does a very good job of conveying the geography of the location, giving a sense of where the heroes are in relation to the villains. The gradual climb of the lead characters gives the story a sense of escalation that complements the rising action. This film is an arrow point of a story; it is a brutal tale of survival and the filmmakers have no illusions about what kind of picture they are making. But Dredd is smart is subtle ways that differentiate it from the average shoot-‘em-up picture. For example, the film acknowledges that guns do not carry infinite ammunition and uses this as a plot device. It also provides a little more emotional nuance in its violence than other films like this; it’s still hard edged but the fact that the picture recognizes some complexity in its violence is notable. Dredd is a visually fascinating film that mixes some beautiful cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle with gritty production design by Mark Digby. The sets, costumes, and make up give the world of Dredd a very lived-in quality and the filmmakers deserve some recognition for making this film as viscous and uncompromising as it is. This is a hard-R action film with some tough visuals and that distinguishes it from other superhero films in general and from 1995’s Judge Dredd in particular.  Unlike other remakes and reboots, Dredd is a distinctly different film from its predecessor and the boldness of the picture makes a lasting impression.

What Doesn’t: Dredd has more of a premise than an actual story and while that works for the filmmakers’ purposes, it also creates problems for the movie. Siege films tend to be self-contained; all the action is limited to a specific space that the characters fight over. Dredd gets into trouble when characters from the outside enter into the conflict, namely a squad of corrupt Judges who turn on the heroes. It is unclear how they are connected to the villain and Judge Dredd’s dealings with them are surprisingly abrupt, especially given the implications of corruption. The other notable problem with Dredd is rooted in the story’s premise. Like the previous Judge Dredd movie, the filmmakers miss what is most interesting and contradictory about the character: Judge Dredd is a fascist. It is a cliché of law enforcement cinema to suggest that cops and criminals are two halves of the same whole (and it is also disingenuous) but in the circumstances of Dredd’s story world that is precisely the case. This is a film about one violent thug out to displace another and in that respect, Dredd distills the authoritarianism of contemporary action filmmaking, especially in comic book adaptations. A few pictures, such as The Dark Knight trilogy and Watchmen, show an awareness of this problem and manage to comment upon it but most superhero movies are so caught up in the action and the mythos that they blow right past it. The filmmakers of Dredd are so focused on the immediate action that they never stick their head out of the fog of war. As a result they miss the bigger and more interesting issues at hand.

Bottom Line: Dredd is a very good shoot-‘em-up adventure and it delivers exactly the kinds of stunts and set pieces that action aficionados will love. It’s no more than that but the film succeeds in exactly what it is attempting to do: entertain its audience.

Episode: #407 (September 30, 2012)