Saturday, September 29, 2012

DREDD (3D) is not "Dreadful", but... (w/some notes on THE RAID too, cause why not)

I must say this up front, because this will probably make or break you going on reading the rest of this review: I haven't read any Judge Dredd comics.  Well, not stand-alone anyway, I know I have one Batman/Judge Dredd crossover comic, but that's neither here nor there.  My familiarity is only from some word of mouth from fellow 'geek'-property friends, and, yes, from the Slyvester Stallone movie.  So I went in just expecting something that would be a thrilling action picture, probably (no, definitely) faithful to the comics, where its a super grungy dystopian landscape with a 'Judge' (Super-Law-Enforcer Man you could call him, like RoboCop only human) who doesn't take off his helmet, and is kind of an underdog right now at the cineplex and box-office.  I went in fair as I could.

... Except for one thing, which I really didn't expect (not a review I read or heard of the film except the general 'it's good' from Rotten-Tomatoes blurbs and the like): its plot premise is very, VERY similar to that of the sleeper genre hit The Raid: Redemption that came out earlier this year by Gareth Evans.  How similar?  Look up the plot to that movie.  And here goes: an armored-suited man, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) takes a new female rookie Judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) along as he goes to pick up a perp inside one of the 'Blocks', a large, many-stories-high apartment complex that has the ability to be closed off with metal armor (lots of armor in this movie).  The person they are after/their task involves a drug ring run by Ma-Ma (The Lady Lannister from Game of Thrones, Lena Hedley) who will not go down without a fight: that is, putting the entire apartment complex on lockdown, and going on a loudspeaker to tell all its citizens, criminal or otherwise, that fortune will come to them if they kill the Judges.  So the shit's on, as it were, all about this criminal drug ring, and, oh, there are other things too, but no more spoilers if I can help it.


I know it's not screenwriter Alex Garland's fault or the filmmakers that their film came out the same time as Evans, and that I shouldn't hold it against it.  But as a film person, maybe even more than a comics person, and having seen The Raid coincidentally two days ago, it's hard to put one film out of the mind.  Particularly, sadly, when Evans film just had more breathtaking, pulse-pounding, balls-to-the-motherfucking wall action sequences, shot where you could see the action clearly (albeit hand-held) and with lots of great build up and climax.  Neither film exactly had more sharply defined or well drawn out characters, though in a way I think in retrospect I appreciated the villains in The Raid more, Bond villain cut-outs they were (the Bad-Ass-Physical villain as the #2, and the more Brainy-Calculating one the #1), as they brought some gnarl and vigor to their nasty characters.

In Dredd, we get Lena Headly, who has proven herself more than a competent actress, she's a downright chilling and positively confounding presence when given strong material, which is what happened with her Lannister character on the first two seasons of Game of Thrones.  With Ma-Ma, she can occasionally sneer or snarl, but mostly she's super calm and cool, maybe too much so.  I don't want a super goofy villain every time into one of these things, but I wondered in some scenes where the actresses' head was at.  She's given little to do except have the appearance of toughness, and to be sure Ma-Ma's backstory ain't pretty as a woman of the slums who has had rough times (see her face for that).  But I didn't feel any extra animosity towards her, and also not much excitement when she appeared either.  She is given (one spoiler) a SUPER-MEGA-WHOA! death scene, which is consistent with the 'Slo-Mo' drug shown earlier in the film to give cinematic slow-motion-itis for genre buffs, and that's fine.  But... yey?


Karl Urban makes a good Judge Dredd.  I don't say great or horrible, because what else is there to say about an actor who has more than proven himself before, such as Bones in the reboot of Star Trek, and yet, how much can a man really do with his chin and gnarled lips and voice?  He can keep the scenes going and has decent chemistry (for what it's worth) with the two-dimensional Thirlby, but I can't help but think that there is a problem with having the helmet on the WHOLE TIME.  I sincerely apologize to the fans of the comic, as I'm sure for that it could work well, but in a film, and with an actor as expressive as Urban can be, I would like to see the eyes maybe once, or twice, to get a feel past the super-cold exterior.  It's like the opposite issue with Tom Hardy's Bane, where a sincerely goofy voice and mask still got on a level playing field with the actor's equally sincere use of his eyes.  If all you got is a Hardcore Chin and a Hardcore Voice, it wears out its welcome by the film's end.

And it's not that there are not things to find admirable in the film.  Far from it; the production design of these gigantic-looking apartment complexes made of rectangular steel-gray steel and brick are superlative (more 'sci-fi' than those of The Raid, but it can stand on its own).  The gun technology gave some different things to do, so it was not ALL just gun-shoot-gun-shoot-gun.  This is the kind of world where a guy gets an 'Incinerate' function on his weaponry, and a big machine gun can rip through rock and rubble.  The little moments here can be affecting, such as Anderson's use of her mutant-telekinesis powers (kind of like Jean Grey only not totally consistent), and when she shows Dredd a more sophisticated form of 'interrogation' where it goes back and forth between her and a black thug about information, drugs and potential sodomy.  It's one minute of film between them that is odd, crude, daring in its lighting and cutting and jarring for all the right reasons... and then it goes back to being the movie it is.


None of the side characters are particularly memorable, which is also a shame.  If there could be just a shred, a scene even, of comic relief, it could relieve the Black-as-Fuck tension between the Good and Bad guys and gals and keep things interesting.  The textbook Nerdy computer geek is used, but has one emotion to play the whole film: 'AH! DON'T KILL ME HERE'S THE COMPUTER INFO, HERE HERE!"  And at the end of it all is Dredd himself, a stone cold Man of the Law, who, maybe most interesting of all, doesn't go over the line.  Early on the story seemed to be like Dirty Harry on Steroids (and that could be my lead in to this article if I was writing for a paper that asked for a stupid-but-clever byline), and it even goes as far as to ape the 1976 Harry flick The Enforcer, where Clint gets rookie Tyne Daly to follow him around at work.  But where Callahan goes over the line to get his justice, Dredd is tough but in a strange way not quite tough enough.  It is keen of the filmmakers to tread that line - make him a hard-ass but, when it comes to, say, a couple of dumb kids in the complex using guns they don't know how to use, Dredd dispenses quick justice but not to a point that would challenge the audience's perception of him - however, it keeps him TOO straight and narrow.

It's a straight adaptation of the world of the 2000-AD comics, and for the big fans of the source it should do fine.  Hell, for a SyFy channel movie for a lazy weekend afternoon, it might be more than fine.  A lot of work went into the film, past it being an unnecessary 3D excursion (trust me, aside from those nifty 'Slo-Mo' set pieces, and a few cool death scenes, there's no real use for it outside of its gimmicky-ness).  And Urban and Garland and probably the director wanted to give fans and non-fans something cool to chew on, or at least something to gnaw away the taste of the Stallone vehicle that bombed.  And, objectively, this IS better.  But is it more *fun*?  That's up for the jury to decide... and then, uh, judge, and, gulp, execute?

Ok, I'm done...


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