Movie Review: Exhilarating, Violent DREDD Packs a B-Movie Punch

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The first of Dredd‘s many pleasures is that it manages to right the wrongs that Danny Cannon and Sylvester Stallone wrought with their woefully misbegotten Judge Dredd adaptation.  That earlier film has achieved cult status since its 1995 release, though I can’t imagine why; Judge Dredd largely eschews the satirical intentions of comic-book writer John Wagner’s original Dredd conception (in a dystopian future, Wagner’s Judges act as judge, jury, and executioner for all crimes, and they’re the good guys) for an overblown, needlessly jokey, and – despite its R rating – surprisingly bloodless action affair that exists only to stoke Stallone’s raging ego.  Want a taste?  In the comics, Dredd rarely removes his Judge’s helmet, but Stallone so couldn’t stomach hiding his mug behind that defining visual trait that his Dredd remains unmasked for probably 90% of the picture’s runtime.

Dredd director Pete Travis doesn’t make that same mistake.  In the first scene, we see his Dredd (Karl Urban) suiting up for battle, and Travis affords us only a shadowy glimpse of Urban’s movie-star profile before the helmet swallows up the rest.  Dredd the man does not matter; all we care about is the Judge, and his scowling, heavily obscured visage tells us everything we need to know about the character: this is a man who has devoted himself to the law, in all its brutal, messy complications.

That’s not to say that this Dredd is a one-dimensional killing machine – despite having limited facial expressions at his disposal (we see Dredd’s nose and mouth, which mostly just scowls), Urban creates a whole character from his body language and physical details.  The way Dredd strides into one violent altercation after another speaks volumes about his state of mind, as does the quiet, hesitant way he regards his rookie partner Anderson (indie darling Olivia Thirlby, lending this cliché of a character pluck and empathy).  Not since Paul Verhoeven’s great Robocop has a sci-fi action hero conveyed so much from so little, and Urban’s strange, inscrutable presence gives Dredd more depth than its (admittedly) formulaic plot contours would otherwise have.

The helmet fix is the first indication that Dredd knows what it’s doing, but it’s a testament to Travis and his Dredd crew that they nail so many of the other details as well.  Their Mega City 1 isn’t some Batman and Robin-esque pop-fantasia – it’s a teeming, fetid slum that spans from Washington, D.C., to Boston.  Travis shot Dredd in Cape Town and working with the great cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he shot such modern genre classics as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist), he gives the city an overripe sense of menace.  There are very few primary colors in Dredd; the color palette favors dusky browns and oranges, and the digital noise from the Red One camera adds a jittery, pixelated instability.

The aesthetic message is clear: Mega City 1 is rotting from the inside out, and while it’s possible that Travis and Mantle’s harsh visual choices might have distanced viewers from the film itself (Dredd grossed a paltry $13 million when it premiered last October), I respected Dredd‘s full-throated commitment to the rank and the diseased.  This future-scape makes no effort to ingratiate itself, as opposed to the iPad-sleek look of most sci-fi blockbusters (Total Recall, I’m looking at you).

All of these rough, iconoclastic choices add up, and the result is a sci-fi thriller that works far better than it should.  On the story level, Dredd is no great shakes; screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) blends equal parts Dirty Harry, Robocop, District 9, Total Recall, The Warriors, and this year’s great The Raid: Redemption to show what happens when Dredd and Anderson go to investigate three random killings and find themselves trapped inside a futuristic apartment tenement with a vicious crime lord (Lena Headey, AKA Queen Cersei on “Game of Thrones”) and her many minions on the warpath.  But the visual pizazz more-than compensates for any formula triteness (see Dredd in 3D if you can), as do the performances, which include Urban and Thirlby’s engaging buddy-cop act, Wood Harris’ unwitting criminal escort, and Headey’s frightening “Ma-Ma,” who hides manic rage behind a wicked facial scar and eerily calm vocal intonations.

The on-screen carnage helps, too.  Lest it be mistaken that Dredd is some kind of impressionistic chamber piece, I should mention that this thing is, first and foremost, a damn fine action movie.  It’s one long siege as the tenement’s occupants turn on Dredd and Anderson, and Travis keeps tossing in ways to make the violence kinetic and involving.  The splatter content is insane – bullets blast county-sized holes out of people, bodies are skinned alive and thrown off buildings, heads are melted – and in the film’s neatest trick, Garland invents an addictive street drug that only amplifies the chaos.  The drug is called Slo-Mo, and it slows down the user’s spatial perception to just 1% of life’s normal speed.

The Slo-Mo scenes are beautiful; Mantle saturates the images to let in bright primary colors and shimmering pastels.  The trade-off is, these bits are also the most violent, since they let Travis dissect every splattery bullet hit with fetishistic, almost-pornographic detail.  Sensitive viewers should seek refuge elsewhere, but gore-hounds will be in heaven, and Travis is so good about including enough humor (during a shootout in a mall, the P.A. system blares out all the floors where consumers can safely shop) and varying the types of blood-letting that Dredd‘s action never becomes rote or nihilistic.

In the end, we’re left with a B-movie, but what a B-movie this is!  Violent, subversive, and short – at ninety-six minutes, Dredd doesn’t have time to overstay its welcome.  For a select substratum of viewers, it’s a perpetual entertainment machine, and one I was thrilled to ride.

The Dredd Blu-ray offers 2D and 3D versions on the same disc – both preserve the film’s gritty visual style.  The 2D version is a little sharper, but the 3D version has surprisingly good focus and brightness, and it makes the action scenes all the more immersive, as does the bombastic and crisp 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Only the bonus features disappoint.  Outside of two terrific featurettes (the “Mega-City Masters: 35 Years of Judge Dredd” bit on Judge Dredd‘s comic-book incarnations and the “Day of Chaos: The Visual Effects of Dredd” feature on the visual effects), what we have is short and perfunctory.  There are four production featurettes (“Dredd Featurette,” “Dredd’s Gear,” “The 3rd Dimension,” and “Welcome to Peachtree”), the longest of which is only two-and-a-half minutes long, an okay motion comic that runs about three minutes long, and the trailer.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I did want more.

Still, don’t let that discourage you.  Not enough people saw Dredd in theaters – hopefully, it’ll take hold on home media and turn the Stallone version into a bad dream…

The Dredd Blu-ray streets on January 8th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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