It’s hard not to admire the modesty of Dredd 3D. The film doesn’t mess about, and it never aspires to be more than it is. Rather than trying to be anything more creative or important, director Pete Travis has opted to tell a relatively straight-forward action adventure that just happens to be set in the fascinating Mega-City One starring the delightfully straight-forward Judge Dredd. Dredd isn’t trying to save the world, to quell a rebellion or to embark on an epic quest. He’s just tied up in a murder investigation that went bad. Real bad.
In many ways the movie resembles its protagonist – for better or worse. It’s blunt, simplistic and ruthlessly conventional. It’s also violent, efficient and never anything less than what it claims to be.
I’d assure you that it’s better than Stallone’s Judge Dredd, but that sounds like damning with faint praise. Dredd actually succeeds on its own terms, offering an efficient minimum-frills-attached story for the helmet-wearing protagonist. Fans will be relieved to hear that Karl Urban never flashes anything above the nose, but that’s perhaps the most obvious way that Travis’ Dredd is more faithful to the source material, and the better for it.
Karl Urban actually puts in a great performance as Dredd. It’s never easy to act with a mask cutting off half your face, but Urban actually manages to bring Dredd to life as an endearing and affectionate homage to Eastwood playing the “jury, executioner, judge”as a state-sanctioned Dirty Harry. He’s curt, straight-forward and to the point.
While escorting a prisoner to custody, Dredd is forced to suppress a gang using a gas grenade. He reaches for his own mask and warns his captive, “I advise you to hold your breath.” And then shuffles the crook through the cloud of noxious chemicals. To be fair, he generally offers his targets a chance for non-violent resolution. Although he’s far too stoic to show any hint of it, one senses part of Dredd is quite pleased when they decline.
Of course, Dredd is a British creation, but one firmly anchored in a distinctly American tradition. He’s the law enforcement anti-hero taken to the logical extreme. He’s the cowboy cop and the frontier sheriff all rolled into one package and given absolute authority – a brutal parody of excessive American machismo expressed in its purest form with a straight face belying the dark humour underneath. Dredd wears a parody of a sheriff’s badge, with his name engraved across it in cartoonishly large letters. He doesn’t just talk to his gun, he commandsit. He rides a motorbike. He doesn’t negotiate. He doesn’t take crap.
The appeal of Dredd is in that simplistic archetype, and it’s something that the film respects. It doesn’t matter if we never see Dredd’s face – he’s more than a man, he’s an archetype. He’s not really a character as much as a collection of decidedly American clichés about coercion and authority given form. This movie understands that – and that is why it’s important that Dredd never takes off his helmet, because there’s nothing under there. You can see Dredd’s face every time you stare at that helmet and that blacked-out visor. Dredd is as much in his gun and his badge as he is in his flesh and his blood.
Of course, it doesn’t do for a major film to star a central character who never shows his face to the audience. That is, after all, why Stallone was prone to removing his helmet in Judge Dredd. It’s nice that Dredd resists the temptation, although it tries to have things both ways by introducing a supporting character – “rookie” Judge Anderson – who refuses to wear a helmet because it would interfere with her psychic abilities. (“A bullet would interfere with them more,” Dredd deadpans.) Played by Olivia Thirlby, there’s a sense that Anderson is given focus in order to give us a face we can relate to. We learn about her back story, and she gets a character arc, things that Dredd doesn’t really have.
Dredd is a constant. He doesn’t grow or change or evolve over the course of the story. This isn’t an origin story, as Hollywood tends to like. This is just another (albeit extremely tough) day for him. fittingly, Dredd never seems to get too worked up about anything. After stumbling across the manufacturing hub and distribution centre of the city’s newest narcotic, he simply brings himself to mutter, “Interesting.” After a hard day’s work, all he can muster is “Good.” Even on the verge of dying, Dredd is still glowering beneath the helmet. Urban wisely avoids chewing the scenery, and even the character’s patented catchphrase feels understated, rather than feeling forced or over-played.
The movie stumbles a bit early on, when Judge Anderson is asked to demonstrate her “psyche” skills. It falls into the familiar “tell, don’t show” routine as she describes Dredd as an angry and reserved figure with… somethingbubbling underneath. Thankfully, it’s the only really painful moment of forced exposition we get about Dredd as a character, and the rest of the film treats him as a fairly straight-forward certainty. Dredd is a force of nature, a moral absolutist in a world gone completely mad, a philosophical certainty in a city full of ambiguity.
Given that Dredd exists as a ridiculously over-the-top parody of fictional gung-ho American authority figures, it feels appropriate that Dredd is something of a celebration of American action movie clichés. The movie has been accused of being a bit too similar to The Raid, with a law enforcement agent taking on a drug cartel running a tower block. However, the film feels more like a collection of familiar action movie tropes. It’s more like a shout-out to movies like Die Hard (another action movie in a tower) or buddy cop movies as Dredd and Anderson find themselves an unconventional duo against the odds.
Pete Travis executes him action really well. The film has the best 3D that I have seen this year, as the director isn’t afraid to use the technology as it was intended – a gleefully cheesy gimmick, and an excuse to throw stuff at the audience. Sharps of glass, bullets and blood are all scattered around like confetti at a wedding, and it lends everything a deliciously pulpy feel. There’s no sense of pretension about the movie, and never a sense that it aspires to be more than it is, and it succeeds admirably.
In particular, Travis renders the drug “slow-mo” wonderfully effectively, as the drug slows down perception of time. It feels like perhaps the movie’s most direct dig at American action movies – and the only time that the film feels quite as subversive as its source material. After all, modern action films have become as hooked on the gimmick of “slow-mo” as any of the residents of the tenement block featured here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the operation featured here had learned the recipe from Michael Bay.
(It’s also interesting that we primarily see “slow-mo”used as a form of torture rather than recreation, to prolong suffering rather than extend euphoria. It feels like a subtle, but biting commentary on the use of slow-motion in modern action films. I actually wish that the idea were touched on more thoroughly and efficiently, as it seems like it’s ripe for a subtle stoic mockery of American action movies, much like Dredd is a stoic mockery of the vigilante law enforcement archetype.)
Unfortunately, the movie does feel a tad too conventional at times, as Dredd and Anderson’s trip through the skyscraper feels like the progression in a video-game, from one level to the next, encountering various bosses and increased difficulties as they go. It uses many of the silly and absurd action film clichés without even a hint of irony or the self-awareness one might expect from the character. At one point a bunch of cannons tear through one half of the structure – seemingly without hitting wither our heroes or any supporting columns. I’m no architect, but it seems like the structure should have collapsed. It feels like the movie should have been a little less obvious in its application of these clichés.
While the decision to keep Dredd’s helmet on is commendable, it does lead to problems later on, towards the climax of the film. During a scuffle with another individual armed in a similar fashion, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is who. It’s not a major problem – it just stands out against the rest of Travis’ delightfully executed action sequences. Still, the movie’s conventionality is both its major strength and its major weakness. It’s nice that the film didn’t try anything too ambitious or too “important”, instead telling a simple story that allowed it to develop the characters and world. On the other hand, it feels tooconventional at times, when it seems like it should be a bit more ironic or subversive.
That said, the film actually does an efficient job building a world around Dredd, at least for the first hour. Far from being intrusive, there are any number of small touches that reflect the character’s origins as social satire. Perhaps the most obvious one is the design of Mega-City One itself. With the exception of the massive tower blocks, it actually looks quite like the “real” world. My inner cynic suggests that this is an effective cost-saving measure, but I like the implication: modern America is not too far off the dystopia of Mega-City One.
A city doesn’t need to be a heavily-stylised backlot set in order to reflect a possible future. Sometimes it’s just the real world pushed to an extreme. The use of footage of riots and protests in the opening scene creates the impression that our world might not be as far off from this sort of science-fiction post-apocalyptic wasteland as we might like to hope, and it’s certainly a more subtle and nuanced approach than we frequently see in this sort of movie. It’s a nice touch, and Travers deserves acknowledgment for it.
The movie also has a delightfully cynical sense of humour, albeit a relatively understated one – like its central character. While the film isn’t a social commentary like Rollerball or Gattaca, there are still some nice touches at play. There’s the morbid idea that bodies are confiscated for “recyke”, and I do like the announcements in the mall during the first shoot-out. Patrons are advised to avoid the foot court due to the hostage situation – but the announcement is quick to point out that there are alternative food courts readily available for patrons.
There’s not too much of that, but there’s enough to suggest a wry sense of humour about the whole thing, a very dark and grim view of a world pretty close to our own. “Homeless,” one sign reads, “will debase self for credits.” Dredd’s cold warnings about vagrancy pay off in a delightfully ridiculous way. There’s also a lot of interesting and understated world-building afoot. It seems Dredd’s America only has five states. We’re told that the city can only respond to 6% of all crimes. There’s a sense that Dredd is perhaps the last incorruptible man.
More than that, I like the idea that Anderson is a “mutant” because of her psychic abilities. Sure, they amount to little more than the ability to see inside a person’s mind, but they are also a rather expanded form of empathy – Anderson is more sensitive and understanding of other people than most. I like the idea that in this cold future that sort of empathy is enough to classify somebody as a “mutie”, as grotesque and inhuman as if she had somehow spouted a third arm. It’s a nice touch.
I quite like Paul Leonard-Morgan’s heavy score, which feels like an attempt to blast the audience into submission. It’s loud and overstated, but it feels wonderfully appropriate, as if harking back to the same classic eighties action movies that clearly inspired the film’s plot. The set and production design are also impressive. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel developed to expand on the character and his world. Dredd is certainly a strong start.
Dredd is not perfect. For one thing, there are times when it’s far too conventional, to the point where its compelling central character and his world aren’t enough to quite sustain it. There are elements that suggest a production not entirely comfortable with the concept and character, although they are relatively few and far between – the use of Anderson as a face the audience can relate to, dialogue about Dredd’s inner life, that sort of thing. Still, it is a wonderfully efficient action movie with an interesting central character and great central performance. It won’t be the best movie you see this summer, but you could do worse.