Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Dredd (2012)

The great age of science fiction movie dystopias occurred from the 1970s to the early 1980s.  During that span -- from roughly 1971 to 1981 -- audiences witnessed dystopias involving over-population (Z.P.G. [1972], Soylent Green 1973]), hippie communes (Zardoz [1973]) fascist computer control (Logan’s Run [1976]), and even rampant crime (Escape from New York [1981]).

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s future cop, Judge Dredd, arose from that historical period.  The character first appeared in the British comic-book anthology 2000 AD in the year 1977.  In the comic-book universe, the fearsome, always-helmeted Dredd patrolled the mean streets of Mega City One on his law-master motorcycle, carrying his lawgiver pistol.  He was a policeman, judge, jury and -- if need be -- executioner.

The dystopian milieu of Dredd was first adapted to film in 1995, with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role. But Judge Dredd was poorly received in large part because it watered down the hardcore nature of Dredd’s dystopia.

In the Stallone film, Dredd often removed his helmet, took time to romance a fellow judge, and had a comedic sidekick played by Rob Schneider.  The film seemed more concerned with fanciful, stereotypically “future” touches and comic relief than with the creation of a real sense of place.  Instead of a legitimately artistic vision, the 1995 film had the word “blockbuster” written all over it.  And there’s nothing more depressing than a film that homogenizes its source material in the hopes of being commercial…and then fails in that endeavor.

The same criticism could never accurately be applied to the compact, concise, and visually-dazzling Dredd (2012), the recent cinematic adaptation of the same comic-book material. 

This new version of the comic-book material is a breath of fresh air in a movie culture that eschews purity of vision in hopes of satisfying the widest possible demographic coalition.  The film’s script is spare, satirical, and relentlessly sharp.  Furthermore, Dredd is unburdened by unnecessary settings, characters, or plot points, making it -- brilliantly -- all of a unified (dystopian) piece.  The film thus represents a perfect introduction to Dredd’s unpleasant world, one where small touches -- like a homeless man holding a sign that reads “will debase self for credits”--  add up to a lot.
By avoiding that pitfall as well as the temptation to go for blockbuster scope and ameliorating, politically-correct touches, Dredd emerges as not only one of the best science fiction films of recent vintage, but one of the best action films since The Matrix, or going back even further, since the original Die Hard (1988).

“Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos…”

In a harrowing future world, much of the United States’ east coast, from Boston to Washington D.C. is a vast metropolis called Mega-City-One.  Eight hundred million citizens live there, and 17,000 crimes are committed per day. Unemployment is at 96% and vast skyscrapers now house entire, self-contained slums of over two-hundred levels.

A cadre of highly-trained Judges enforces order in the unruly city, though even though they can only respond to 6% of the crimes that occur.

On the very day that Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is supposed to train an inexperienced rookie judge, a mutant telepath named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), he discovers just how outnumbered the judges really are.  He and Anderson answer a seemingly routine call at the Peach Trees Slum, and learn that the drug-lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) rules it with an iron fist.   In fact, she has just skinned and murdered a group of rivals.

Before the Judges can take a suspect back to headquarters who can finger Ma-Ma as the main producer of the illegal narcotic “slo-mo” in Mega City One, she locks down the entire slum, and announces over the loudspeaker that the two judges are to be executed.  Any residents who help or hide the law enforcement officers will be killed themselves.

Trapped in a hostile, self-contained city, Dredd, Anderson, and their reluctant witness make their way skywards, towards Ma-Ma’s headquarters, but not before encountering floor-after-floor of deadly resistance…

“It's a fucking meat grinder. People go in one end, and meat comes out the other. All we do is turn the handle.

Dredd is an extremely violent and bloody film. And yet that depiction of violence absolutely rings true with the dystopian world the film portrays.  This is the world Wayne La Pierre apparently thinks we live in today, right now, rife with gang violence everywhere, and the police under constant siege. 

It’s a vision the more reality-based among us would more commonly associate with the early eighties and films such as Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981) or Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).  Nonetheless, the world of Dredd is still believable to us today in part because of sporadic mentions of high unemployment.  This is a problem which still threatens to derail our economy, especially when paired with the dire and looming threat of austerity.

In terms of its intense action, the film unexpectedly lands on a legitimate method to accommodate slow-motion, 3-D photography in its visual tapestry, an accomplishment roughly akin to the genesis of bullet-time as a side-effect of the virtual world in The Matrix (1999).

Only here, much of the action is rendered in glorious, beautiful, rainbow-colored slow-motion because of a narcotic called “slo-mo,” which slows time for the percipient to 1/100th of its normal speed.  Several crucial action sequences are filmed while gunfighters are under the sway of this drug, and the visualizations of these extended moments are incredible.  They are beyond incredible. They are jaw-dropping.

Such a creative visual conceit by itself would mark Dredd as dynamically original action film.  But the movie also succeeds because of its stoic, nearly ascetic artistic values.  The film quickly settles down into one setting and a central conflict, and doesn’t leave that arena, even though the temptation was no doubt to “world build” on a colossal scale. 

But the problem with traveling around and even outside the city, however, is that the sense of overwhelming urban blight, and thus dystopia, is lost.  The existential problem for those unlucky souls who inhabit this world is that they can’t escape the cycle of economic ruin and crime.  So to have Dredd flying off to locales far and wide (as he did in the 1995 film) would spoil the atmosphere of doom and hopelessness.  Dredd works so splendidly because the judge finds himself locked down in a claustrophobic trap, one where he must fight just to survive, let alone to execute the law.

Although the violence in Dredd is particularly bracing, it is also depicted in such a way as to be -- dare I say it? -- beautiful

In part, this aesthetic works very well because the film projects a hopeless future.  The only way to experience pleasure for the poor and unemployed is to use “slo mo.”  The drug permits one to mentally check out, and view the world as a kind of lumbering, slow-motion tapestry.  In this way, life is revealed as a slowly-shifting work of art, one with cascading light, frisson-able atmospherics and other tactile pleasures.

Nihilistically then, life can only be appreciated in a world that is not “convulsing, choking and breaking under its own weight,” to quote the film’s dialogue.  Dredd’s drug-of-choice makes the visualization of the action revolutionary, but it also does something else too.  It reveals much about the culture that created it.

Ma-Ma’s death scene is the most egregious example of this aesthetic of violence.  Dredd gives the crime boss a snoot-ful of slo-mo and pushes her off a high ledge.  She will fall to her death down a trench of 200 levels, and the moments before her death will be extended dramatically because of the drug.

Is this a kind of mercy?

Or is it a brand of punishment? 

Does slowed down time augment and extend Ma-ma’s terror at the oncoming death, or does it lengthen the last few, precious moments of her life on this mortal coil?

Although I don’t view Dredd as the merciful type, I would argue that the visuals raise the question.  Ma-ma’s falling body seems to fall first through a shattered snow globe of sorts, with glittering debris all around, and then, she passes through a kind of color rainbow and atmospheric rain cloud.  Implicitly, she gets to experience one lost moment of beautiful life before hard, cruel reality re-asserts itself….violently.

Maybe that is punishment: the knowledge that she could have done things differently, and experienced life’s beauty for many more years had she not been so terrible and murderous.

In whatever way one chooses to parse this climactic sequence, it is visually dazzling, and a reminder that even in the most unpleasant situations, life is still the best game in town. 

 Most of the violence in the film also involves the restoration of order in an out-of-control setting, and from a certain perspective, that too can be a beautiful thing, or at least a relief. The moment of Ma-ma’s death expresses the effect of the drug, of but also the liberation of Peach Trees at Dredd’s hand.  It is a sustained, gorgeous, visual catharsis.  .

Sometimes it is useful to discuss a movie in terms of other movies, and indeed, that’s the case here.  Dredd features the Training Day (2001) scenario of an experienced cop showing a rookie the ropes. It also features the “hostile city” scenario of Black Hawk Down (2001), wherein American soldiers fought a whole metropolis rising up to kill them in Mogadishu, with precious few safe harbors.   And in keeping with the dystopia comparison, the contained “future” city of Logan’s Run (1976) is not all that different from the Peach Trees slum.

The remarkable thing about Dredd is the smooth, uncluttered manner in which it silently assimilates all those cinematic references into a dynamic and surprising new narrative.  If Training Day was about a first day on the job, and a corrupt cop, Dredd concerns instead, a policeman who, no matter the situation, won’t abandon his principles.  Black Hawk Down was about a foreign policy failure and its blowback on America, but Dredd concerns a terminal, ubiquitous economic failure and the internal blowback resulting from that problem.  Even the glittering shopping mall city-of-the-future from Logan’s Run (1976) is reflected or overturned in the blighted commercial landscape of the Peach Trees Ghetto. 

Paradoxically, Dredd is both a dazzling movie, and a grounded one.  It is dazzling in its visual imagination and audacity, yet grounded in the way it adheres to the rules of its grim, future world.  There is little sentimentality in the film, and yet the burgeoning friendship between Dredd and Anderson nonetheless transmits beautifully.

After the Stallone version of the same material, I was “dreading” this re-boot, but director Peter Travis has given us a new classic, and one that I wager we’ll be discussing for years to come.  A sequel would be great, but it isn’t, strictly-speaking, necessary. We now have the definitive Judge Dredd movie.


  1. Easily one of my favorites of 2012. You've covered what made it so very well, John.

  2. Excellent review! This is an impressive film and one that wipes out the memory of Stallone's crappy take on the material. I think it helps that the filmmakers who made DREDD worked closely with the creator of the comic book and kept him in the loop, which resulted in a more substantial take on the material. Stripping it down and keeping it lean and mean was definitely a great way to go after the blockbuster bloat of the Stallone version. I sure hope that the sequel gets greenlighted as the ending leaves things off for more stories to be told now that the world and the characters that inhabit it have been established. Sadly, the box office results weren't very good but maybe home video sales will sway the powers that be.

  3. I wasn't hoping for much when I first saw the trailer. Then I finally gave it a try - and I've rarely been so happy to be proven wrong. As you perfectly wrote it, Dredd is faithful to the original spirit of the comics, while Judge Dredd in 1995 gave us a faint cartoon-like version.

    I would also add that the score written by Paul Leonard-Morgan perfectly echoes those sudden bursts of violence and the charged atmosphere of the whole movie. It conveys this idea of latent danger and almost palpable roughness.

    And for once, I was relieved to see such a cardboard character - because that's exactly what we're expected from Dredd. No romance, no cliché on his personal arc to make him "more human" for the viewer. The dried acting of Karl Urban paradoxically remains an incredible performance.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts - I've been waiting for your review like an excited kid at Christmas!

  4. John,

    I think everyone above pretty much sums up what I would have said. An excellent review of one of the best films of 2012.

    I didn't go see it during its original theatrical run fearing a horrible rehash of the Stallone debacle, so I waited for the DVD to come out. After watching it, I immediately went to the local Best Buy and purchased the blu ray.

    Stunning visually and you are right, in a weird way, there is some beauty to the violence, well said.

    I also agree with the comment about the score for the film. Excellent music that went perfectly with what was going on via the movie screen.

    Not much more to say on this one. Fantastic review!

  5. *slow clap*

    Well done good sir. I've been waiting for your take ... and you delivered.

  6. If anyone is looking for that tad bit extra of Judge Dredd subculture, check out Anthrax's album Among the Living. Track 3 is 'I Am the Law', one of Anthrax's best songs, and it is all about the man himself!

    (And that album is nerdy in general, with songs, as well as the album name, referencing Stephen King's The Stand, Apt Pupil, Judge Dredd, Jim Belushi and other general sci-fi apocalyptic themes.

  7. Ichi

    Nice review. You touched upon some aspects that I, too, found fascinating. Forgive me for reiterating, but I’ve a lot share from my point of view as well.

    For a futuristic sci-fi action film, Dredd was made for a very cool $45 million. The comparatively limited budget shows, but in ways more refreshing than inhibiting. Low scaled are most of the action set pieces. This isn't some bullshit martial arts fiasco or a showcase for absurd stunts and acrobatics, so don't go in expecting Tom Cruise or Tony Jaa or Jason Bourne, or any kind of elaborate Bond movie contraption where a crane flips car or where the hero rides his motorcycle onto a speed boat. No Yuen Woo-ping. No Rio de Janeiro rooftop chases. Dredd is pure, full-on weapons assault. Nothing more. It's a movie about cops with guns who enter rooms and use them; in one sense, a throwback to unceremonious 80s action in the vein of Walter Hill, and yet the cinematic execution is upgraded with FX lyricism.

    What’s interesting is that the action itself is not really the film’s draw. Burst of pyrotechnic flurry are intense but likewise numbered. Again, the budget simply wasn’t there to render epic sized spectacle from start to finish. Instead, the bulk of the film is reduced to confined space shootouts and characters making their way through darkened corridors. Such could have proven dull, and indeed the narrative skirts monotony here and there, but the filmmakers were keen to distinguish ultra-violence as a separate entity and further highlight it as the main attraction. Dredd is no doubt a graphically violent affair. Characters die in horrible ways, up close and personal. Yet, as you express, John, the ultra-violence has indeed been elevated to an art-form.

    I’m always amazed how trendy filmmaking techniques dulled by endless repetition can sometimes be made new again through clever employment and with a genuine degree of self-expression. Digitized slow motion is nothing new, made iconic by the Wachowskis over a decade ago and long since flogged to death by Zack Snyder and the likes. Two most recent examples would be last summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Resident Evil: Retribution. And yet so enchanted was I by the style, as seen here, that I felt as if I was experiencing it for the first time. The film actually works on two different visual conceits, both of which, in rare form, are actually driven by story elements.

    The first, of course, is the aforementioned and aptly named "Slo-Mo" drug that, again, I agree is truly a psychedelic work of art. Superficial prettiness? Perhaps or perhaps not, as you’ve argued. At the very least I’d contend that it’s a visual style employed with both conviction and the fullest commitment, as it becomes a recurring motif throughout the film, though never as a cheap trick plagued by speed ramping simply to make someone look cool while posing a ninja kick. No, it’s more selective than that; more specific.

    The way scenes of gun violence are slowed to reveal a kind of horrifying ballistic beauty where the human form is mutilated with fetish detail or how it allows audiences to experience a vertigo sense of terminal velocity was something I found incredibly unique (I was brave enough to chance this one on opening day, in 3D). The other visual conceit is the POV of trainee Anderson, a new breed of mutant with psychic abilities that allow her to read the thoughts of others. A key scene of interrogation visually vibrates audiences into the abstracts of the human mind where ensues a mental duel between Anderson and a deranged gangster, which was disturbingly tantalizing but also clever in favor of Anderson’s capability.

  8. Ni

    Thus, Dredd largely forgoes the braindead action mayhem that often accompanies bigger blockbusters in favor of some genuine stylistic inventions. The vista depictions of Mega-City One that bookend the film are given incredible depth by its 3D, and even without it, accentuating the stark utilitarian look of a future urban sprawl that is markedly more realistic than what’s usually seen from the genre. The RED MX digital camera delighted me in ways unexpected. Possibly yet another result of the limited budget, much of the film’s darkened interiors are grained by a kind of iridescent digital noise.

    This may in fact be an example of new technology versus inexperienced filmmaking, or what-have-you, but what others might call a defect I see more as an artifact, one with a certain videographic quality strangely appropriate to the film as it invokes a kind of surveillance effect. And I agree with others on the prize that is Paul Leonard-Morgan score, which infuses the classic style riffs of John Carpenter with a heavier electro-industrial sound, and thirdly giving trance-like ambiance to Slo-Mo trips along with Anderson's personal moments of reflection.

    The surface of the story is mostly generic stuff where the tough cop breaks in his rookie partner followed by broad moralities on what it means to dispense justice. The two most developed characters are the two female leads. I really dig Lena Headey as the scarred-up Ma-Ma. She gazes at people and things with a pure murderous countenance, and yet her quiet exterior is bewitching. Olivia Thirlby gives a surprisingly good turn as the young Anderson, playing the character as an alien of sorts, in one sense detached from humanity by her telepathic powers -- deemed a freak -- while at the same time struggling to maintain it alongside the harsh demands of the job.

    This of course leaves Karl Urban as the titular hero. Where both of the women have backstories, Dredd has none, nada, zero, zilch. The law is Dredd’s character. The law is Dredd. That’s it. He is simply what he does. Tucked away behind the helmet and armor for the whole movie, Urban doesn’t so much act the part as he merely embodies it; personality-wise, a steady mix of Dirty Harry, Snake Plissken and RoboCop, occasionally letting slip one-liners with a Sahara-dry sense of humor. In comic book form Dredd is a hulking physical caricature, and therefore the casting of Stallone in the 1995 original was more fitting (despite the film failing as a whole). In both cases the same sensational origin reveals that Dredd and evil brother Rico were elite genetic clones form a Chief Judge Fargo figure.

    This rendition of the character, however, has been cut down to something even more rudiment. Urban’s Dredd is practically anonymous; line him up alongside his fellow Street Judges and he’s likely to blend right in. Where he came from, who he was before, is of no consequence. He’s not in any way special by birth or predestined by science or the establishment, nor is he a Frank Castle family man contorted into vigilantism by the death of his loved ones. There is neither a deep mystery to the character nor a tidy bow-wrapped explanation of his origins. Neither is necessary.

    More interesting is the possibility that the man we see here, at most, was once just some lowly security guard -- just another nameless, faceless inhabitant, perhaps socially awkward -- before becoming a Judge, and one who has since taken the job way too seriously. Dredd may in fact be the craziest one of them all, an extremist, borderline fascist by his own mental bent. But he’s also the good guy who gets things done, thus placing the viewer in a classic state of cognitive dissonance. A moral and intellectual free-fall.

  9. San

    To conclude all three of the main players together, Dredd is not supposed to change. That’s the point, part-and-parcel of the character. Neither Dredd nor Ma-Ma change throughout the film. Both are opposing absolutes. It’s up to Anderson to navigate these extremes as a means to understand the world she’s been thrown into. It really is her story in that respect and she does have a clearly defined character arc, but one that, given the circumstances, is appropriately internalized; her character (and Thrilby’s performance) does not mug the camera with brooding angst, but is quietly reactive to the chaos around her.

    The interpretive skills of modern audiences have been numbed by current popular films into thinking that fictional worlds and whatever meaningful storied content therein should be explained verbally, solely via the scripted page. This film does a phenomenal job of illustrating its world through an elegant, linear premise; through carefully selected and clearly presented visuals and a contained setting that microcosmically reflects a larger whole. The implications of extreme violence, drug use and law enforcement are expressed through action, the superior cinematic form.

    There are some rather profound social-political themes to Dredd as the very idea of sanctioned judgment outside the courtroom -- total judicial authority bestowed to a single individual -- presents a philosophical dilemma in dire need of questioning. Yet the film does not waste time talking about these concepts. It doesn’t reduce them to baby food. Examples are made; subtext is utilized. The world of Mega-City One and the Judges who police it is not a world belabored with thesis-talk and endless monologues (think Nolan’s stuffy Batman films), but rather one that is demonstrated using a singular action-driven premise.

    The Peach Tree tower block scenario gives audiences a day-in-the-life, ant farm perspective where Dredd’s ruthless enforcement of the law is, at the very least, given reasonable causation: "It’s all the deep end," he says grimly when describing the job. Indeed, it’s a world of such extreme chaos that only two means of negotiation seem viable: the bloodthirsty madness and drug induced serenity indulged by Ma-Ma or the medieval adherence to judicial order that defines Dredd. It is left for Anderson to discover the harsh reality that both opposing axioms live and die by the sword. Welcome to the future.

    Action blockbusters have a tendency to balloon in size and budget, growing top-heavy with too many story elements that seldom live up to the pretense and/or too many studio execs homogenizing the content in order to appeal to the widest audience. Dredd is basic, trimmed down with an A-to-B plotline for a 95 minute running time. It’s an R-rated movie for an R-rated audience that respects its limited budget and doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. But it’s also an experiment in aesthetic forms, and further introduces a world of crime and Judges that leaves you wanting more by the end credits.

    Adding to the redundancy, I can’t help but praise Ma-Ma’s death scene as well. You really do elaborate on the elements that make it work, and I think its admirable how the filmmakers avoided the process of trying to top every proceeding set-piece with bigger and more grandiose fireworks, choosing instead to end the conflict with something simple but visually poignant.

    The specific shot that I like most is Ma-Ma’s POV of Dredd. There’s something resonate about the fact that he is the last person she sees before oblivion, staring back at her in Slo-Mo, through snowflake broken glass. It’s a polarizing image when you stop and think about it: a beautifully near-frozen moment of your grim-faced executioner as he gives you the sweet release of death. And yet for Dredd this was all just another day at the office ...throwin' a bitch out the window.

  10. Anonymous9:14 PM

    I suggest you check out The Raid as well, john. It's an Indonesian action film with a similar set up: elite cops trapped in a building against wave after wave of villains. It have a more conventional plot, but the martial arts are jaw dropping!

    I missed Dredd in the theater, after waiting for me and some of my other comic geek friends to try to all meet up and go together. And after buying the blu ray the day it came out, movie sight unseen, I regret it ever since!

  11. Great review as usual John.I would also recommend the Raid but apparently the Raid was based on the Dredd script which was written in 2010.I saw the Raid before Dredd,despite similarities my appreciation for both films has not diminished and I would readily recommend both to anyone.

  12. Anonymous9:06 PM

    "We now have the definitive Judge Dredd movie."

    Here here. Finally had a chance to watch this one... wow. Agree with your above. This one.. this one I'll buy a copy.


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