Grrrr! Grumble growl grrrrr.

In this modern age of movies, of $200 million budgets fast becoming the norm, of Man of Steel and Pacific Rim losing huge amounts of money for their studios despite critical and financial success, of Peanuts The Movie and Finding Dory and Transformers 4, Dredd feels like a breath of fresh air.

It’s not a movie for everyone: An independent movie, adapting a long-running British comic with a good-sized fan base. Written, directed and produced by people in this fan base, for a sum of money that I have to refer to as “low budget” despite being several times more money than I’ll ever see in one place. A cast of accomplished character actors playing out a tightly focused story, with minimal characterization and next to no symbolism or message.

Though it’s by no means flawless, Dredd is one of those movies I support on principle. I thought that movies like it were the whole point of all this geek-culture-becoming-the-norm deal: niche films that get wide theatrical releases and big advertising campaigns like broader and more mainstream movies. But lately those have been few and far between, and so it’s nice to have the movie out there out there.

On its release, Dredd put up disappointing box office numbers, but it’s apparently become a cult classic almost instantly (The internet even makes that happen faster). I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for a sequel, but it would be nice to see the movie get some more recognition.

The movie starts with an expository monologue from our title character, played with a perpetual scowl, a poker-faced helmet, and a taciturn growl by seasoned grumbly-guts Karl Urban. The monologue establishes the world of Mega City One – a single huge city stretching the entire Northeastern seaboard (an idea which the Judge Dredd comics had before William Gibson, in case you’re wondering). From what we see of the city, it’s not a nice place to live, but it’s not exactly Thunderdome or Zion – crime and poverty are big problems, but there’s still some sense of structure and order. This is almost entirely thanks to the Mega City’s police force, the Judges (as in ‘Jury and Executioner’, because they sentence and convict people on site).

These are their stories. *CHUNG CHUNG*

 If you want an idea of the Judges, imagine if Commissioner Gordon were on an entire police force of Batmen – a comparison which seems especially apt, considering Dredd’s demeanor. And this is going to sound sacreligious, but Karl Urban does Christian Bale one better with his performance in this film. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, both Batman and Bruce Wayne had a few moments of levity, comic relief, and even self parody. The jokes were generally funny, but the problem was that if you make people laugh at the things you do, they won’t stop laughing. Dredd – both Urban’s character and the film – is taken 100% seriously. There’s no humor, no comic relief, almost no subplots and very few characters – and while this tight focus has some drawbacks, it generally works in the film’s favor, creating a much more cohesive and straightforward story than Nolan did.

While we’re on the subject, I’ll note that though the Judges work at the SuperFriends-reminiscent “Hall of Justice”, their emblem is almost identical to that of SHIELD from the Marvel movies.

The staring contest between these two eagles is currently in its eighth year.

Anyway, we join Judge Dredd in a car chase, on a motorcycle that strangely resembles the Knight Rider car, as he weaves through a traffic jam of vans that looked like they just missed running over Marty McFly as he looks for his son in 2015. The real highlight of this movie is the production design – the art style helps set the tone for the movie, rooted in a heavy, grimy, dull, boxy 1980’s vision of the future, with most of the real high technology looking like something Darth Vader just used to unclog his toilet.

As Dredd chases the guys in the ‘80’s van, we’re introduced to one of this movie’s three kinds of action sequences: gore-filled shootouts in color-saturated, trippy, extreme slow motion. This is justified in-story by Slo-Mo, a street drug that causes a temporary super-slow perception of time. The people in the van have all taken Slo-Mo, and so are barely able to steer, eventually running over a guy in the street. This makes it legal for Dredd to kill them, which he does effortlessly. One of them survives, but Dredd almost instantly runs him down, showcasing our second type of action sequence: Dredd gives a big legalese monologue to an overconfident bad guy before dispatching him instantly, with a cool gadget and a blast of Verhoevian gore.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice…

Okay, sorry, couldn’t resist. Anyway, at the Hall, we’re introduced to Cassandra Anderson. Even though Dredd’s name is on the posters, she’s much closer to the main character – she asks all the questions for the audience’s benefit, has an arc, and a backstory: namely, she has ill-defined psychic powers, and failed the Judge exam but is being given a second chance, since it can’t hurt to have a psychic on your future police force, unless you’re Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

This second chance involves being taken out for 24 hours of on-the-job evaluation by Dredd. Though this setup owes quite a lot to Training Day, there’s simultaneously much more and much less to it: On one hand, the psychic powers and futuristic setting permeate it, which adds a memorable hook and allows for some moments of wordless interaction between the two cops. On the other hand, there’s nothing under the surface for either of them. It gets to the point of self-parody: Cassandra probes Dredd’s mind, where she sees “Anger, and control…but there’s something else, something behind the control…” Whereupon she is immediately silenced by Dredd, telling her to focus on her job. It’s a pretty cheap joke, but it’s effective – especially since it’s the movie’s only real attempt at humor besides the requisite action movie one-liners.

Cut to the villain of our story: Ma-Ma, a drug lord with a penchant for torture. Or, I should say, drug lady – Ma-Ma is a woman, played by veteran character actress Lena Headey. Ma-Ma is, like the movie, sadly unique: A female villain, with no prior relationship to any of the heroes, who isn’t sexualized in any way. Ma-Ma is introduced to us splashing around in a bathtub while on Slo-Mo – just about the only time we see the effect without lots of blood and gore. To hammer this home, Ma-Ma immediately orders three underlings skinned alive and thrown from her penthouse residence – while on Slo-Mo, so everything is that much more agonizing and drawn out. It’s a very good way to establish her character: sadistic, intelligent and pragmatic.

In a rare moment of restraint, the most we see of the torture are a few frames ripped from a Paranormal Activity movie, and three uncooked meatloaves splattering on the sidewalk outside Ma-Ma’s building. It’s sort of disappointing to see that they know when to spare us the blood and guts where it counts – it just makes the gratuitous extra chunky tomato sauce that much more pronounced.

Nurse, I need noodles! NOODLES!

Dredd and Cassandra show up on the scene, where the local medical-tician has ID’d the bodies as members of Ma-Ma’s gang. We get some exposition on her: She was a former prostitute who pulled an Uma Thurman, started her own gang, and took over the entire 200-story building – a building which we now see is called “Peach Trees”. I like this detail – I find it really annoying when places have foreboding-sounding names for no reason. In real life, no one is ever going to name any sort of transportation “Titanic”, or anything that’s meant to survive hot temperatures “Icarus”.

Anyway, the Judges go to the dead goons’ apartment, where they find a Slo-Mo party, giving an excuse for another super slow bloodbath. They handcuff the only survivor – one of the higher ups in Ma-Ma’s gang – and prepare to take him back to the Justice League Satellite for interrogation. Unbeknownst to them, but knownst to us, the security cameras spot them. These cameras are controlled by Cyborg Crybaby, a redhead with electronic eyes and brain implants who works as Ma-Ma’s tech guy. Crybaby tells Ma-Ma about the Judges, and then uses his superhuman skill of being a whiny jerk with a laptop to put the entire building under complete lockdown.

Or maybe he can hypnotize people with those anime eyes of his.

After a well-made lockdown sequence, where everything goes red and black and giant metal plates completely cover the building, Ma-Ma puts on the PA system and tells everyone to kill the Judges. This is pretty much the only moment where she can do some real acting – she stays understated and she never shouts, but there are some real undertones of fury and menace.

Since they now have the entire population of a megastructure on their tail, Dredd and Cassandra head for the huge network of badly lit, rough corridors, where they’ll be spending most of the rest of the movie. The set design gets a real chance to shine here – though the action can get pretty repetitive, the sets keep the narrative varied, especially through the lighting and sound design. For instance, the two pass from the brightly lit and wide-open lobby, to a claustrophobic and dirty yellow corridor, to a greenish stairway, where we get the third and final type of action scene in the movie: Dredd picking off unaware bad guys one at a time, stealth game style, with Cassandra in a supporting role.

Next, we’re back to a quick Type 2 action scene (Dredd lectures a gang of stupid goons before taking them all out at once, in case you’ve forgotten). Only one man remains alive, and Dredd talks Cassandra into steeling herself and finishing him off (again, with a minimum of gore).

On the run from reinforcements, Dredd forces himself and Cassandra into an apartment. Through Cassandra’s contrast-cranking psychic powers, we find that there’s a woman there, whose husband is on the hunt for Judges. As Cassandra sees a picture of the woman’s husband, she notices it’s the same person she killed a few minutes ago. I’d be better disposed to this scene if the ramifications of Cassandra’s unwillingness to kill were ever followed up on, ever, but I guess that’s the drawback of having a script this focused. And while I’m on the subject, the “Little Miss Ethereal” character type (You know, shy girls or young women with superhuman powers but little physical strength, cf. River from Firefly, Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, or Rei Ayanami and her legions of knockoffs) is a pet peeve of mine, and so it’s gratifying that the main emotional drive of this movie is making her grow a pair and function on her own as a Judge.

“I can kill you with my brain, but my gun still works just fine.”

Next up, Cyborg Crybaby spots the Judges as they exit an elevator, and locks down the entire level of the building. Dredd splits up from Cassandra to look for a way out, meaning she gets one one-on-one time with Captured Goon.

…Wait, who? Well, remember that guy they caught before the building got locked down? Well, they’ve been dragging him around with them ever since, and he’s gotten less than three lines since then. He gets some screen time here, though, as he tries to intimidate Cassandra, leading to a color-washed mental pissing match that Dredd has to break up upon his return. As he dodges laser-gatling gun fire in a Type 3 action sequence, he takes some time out to interrogate Captured Goon, who reveals that Ma-Ma has been manufacturing the city’s entire stock of Slo-Mo, explaining why she’s so intent on killing the Judges.

Meanwhile, two other nameless judges show up at Peach Trees’ door, checking up on Cassandra and Dredd. Cyborg Crybaby doesn’t even get the chance to help them before Ma-Ma swoops in and holds a knife to his throat, leaving the judges standing there like idiots, and Cyborg Crybaby living up to his name.

I’m a bit hard on Cyborg Crybaby, but it’s probably because he’s the only major character allowed to express any real emotion – Dredd, Ma-Ma and Goon have a baseline state of detached, bored stoicism that they stick to for almost the entire film, and Cassandra only gets some uncertainty and fear before she achieves this same baseline and sticks to it. It does fit with the tone of the movie, but Cyborg Crybaby’s constant sobbing and shivering really throws it in relief, like having an ice cream sandwich in the middle of an order of hot wings.

Actually, forget that metaphor, that sounds delicious.

Anyway, Dredd asks Cassandra for her take on the situation, and she sees two options: Stay where they are and wait for backup, or try to escape the lockdown. Dredd gruffly proposes a third option: Go to Ma-Ma’s 200th floor base and attack on their own. By this point, Dredd makes it obvious that he knows he’s in a Die Hard-style action movie – and he continues to not care about it. Even in the next scene, when Captured Goon gets the jump on Cassandra and drags her into a convenient elevator – his reaction is no more intense than if someone stepped on his foot by accident.

“The sentence is frowning.”

Cassandra, though, is a bit more on edge, as she’s surrounded by Ma-Ma’s goons. Ma-Ma calls the goons off, though, speechifying to them (where Headey does a great job of intimidating people a foot taller than she is) about how she just wants Cassandra death to look like an accident, as a warning to the Judges. She’s sidetracked, though, when Cyborg Crybaby interrupts to say that Dredd has accessed the same PA system Ma-Ma had used for her big speech earlier.

The entire 200-story building is privy to Dredd’s big pre-battle speech, where I have to give points to the screenwriter for working in “I am the law” without sounding forced or stupid. I’ll have to dock some of those points, though, for giving him a particularly stupid one-liner: “As for you, Ma-Ma…judgement time.” Maybe it’s Urban’s even-more-growly-than-usual delivery, maybe it’s the overlong pause, maybe it’s the serious tone of the movie, but this line never fails to get a laugh out of me.

Anyway, the grandeur of Dredd’s speech also tips off Cyborg Crybaby to his location, but it’s another trap, as Dredd burns everyone in the area from afar. (More Type 2 action, for those keeping count.)

Ma-Ma is stunned, for the briefest of moments, but quickly regains her demeanor, and smiles as she calls the Hall of Justice.

Using Jimmy Olsen’s signal watch!

Four judges quickly arrive at Peach Trees, where the lockdown has lifted, and find the medical-tician from before. He’s come out of his safe house to assist the judges, but he’s shot in the head without a word. The Judges then go up to Ma-Ma herself, where they take her bribe of one million credits (because the writer’s imagination ran out when it came to naming future currency) to kill Dredd and hush everything up.

Dredd greets one of the judges with the closest thing to warmth he can muster (i.e. he growls a bit less) but soon spots the ruse and kills him, going on the run. Meanwhile, Captured Goon has Cassandra tied up with her own high-tech Judge-issue gun at her head. He taunts her a little, but she recovers after the gun detects a non-Judge holding it and blows up his hand. Cassandra escapes, snaps Captured Goon’s neck, and uses psychic powers to escape (Type 3 action) and find out that the corrupt Judges are out to kill her.

Dredd finds the final corrupt Judge in the Slo-Mo factory. Since he knows he’s in an action movie, he stalls for time by starting a Type 2 action scene, lecturing the Judge on the importance of upholding the law and letting him gloat in response – giving Cassandra time to rescue him by shooting the corrupt Judge in mid-monologue.

As our heroes finally make it to the 200th floor, they encounter Cyborg Crybaby, who surrenders immediately. As Cassandra reads his mind to find out Ma-Ma’s passcodes, he sees that he’s been held here against his will, and explains why he’s such a crybaby: Ma-Ma personally gouged out his eyes so he could replace them with electronic ones. Cassandra takes pity on him, and tells him to leave, which he does, sobbing all the while.

Dredd and Cassandra finally lock horns here – Dredd feels that letting Cyborg Crybaby free was against the law, but Cassandra is adamant – even though she can tell that Dredd will fail her on-the-job exam because she got captured, she’s still a Judge for now. This is one of the few real emotional moments that involve our title character, and it works well – the two reconcile, and trade some warm buddy-cop banter as they storm Ma-Ma’s room.

Ma-Ma doesn’t put up much of a fight, but she reveals her ace in the hole: She’s taken a page from Snow Crash (lookitup), and has wired the entire building to explode if a little transmitter on her wrist fails to find a pulse. Unfazed, Dredd grabs her and decides to gamble on the transmitter being short range. He starts a final Type 1 action scene, shooting Ma-Ma up with Slo-Mo, reading her an echoey, unintelligible list of crimes, and dropping her out the window. I’ll admit that I’m usually a sucker for dramatic wordless scenes in action movies, but here it just seems like a way to beef the running time up to an hour and a half.

What, no slowed-down “NOOOOOOO”?

The building doesn’t blow up, and we get an artsy-fartsy shot of the sun rising as it lights up the lobby:  they were in there all night. Cassandra and Dredd meet up with a senior Judge, who asks what happened. Dredd is as laconic as ever: “Drug bust. Perps were uncooperative.” I know this is supposed to show how totally unfazed Dredd has been by the entire experience, and that this happens to him all the time, but it seems a bit self-congratulatory for me – “Oh yeah, didn’t break a sweat, this was no big deal.” I mean, come on! You could at least acknowledge you just starred in an action movie – don’t get a swelled head. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he never takes off his helmet…

Anyway, it’s time for some serious denouement for our actual main character. Cassandra, knowing she failed, hands Dredd her badge, but then he gives it back, as the camera pulls back and he repeats the opening monologue about Judges before the credits roll. Now, I’m willing to forgive a certain amount of cliche and overused gimmicks in movies like this, but I think closing the movie by repeating the opening monologue is just plain lazy. Why? Because there’s a single, easy change they could have made that would have added some real pathos to it – Have the monologue done by Cassandra in the end. Bam – an easy way to that she’s achieved equal status to Dredd’s. You can even have her put on a helmet and smoke a few packs of cigarettes beforehand, if you’re the verisimilitudinous type (I don’t get to use that word nearly often enough).

If it seems I’m in two minds about Dredd, it’s because I’m not really in the target audience. I admire what the movie stands for, I approve of the structure and premise, I love the design and the acting, but there’s still a lot to turn me off the movie – especially the repetition. Judge Dredd has quite a few good ideas, but not among them was to just present them several times over and hope that could serve as the basis for a movie.

Dredd, for better or worse, feels remarkably like a double-length episode of a cop show. And if it were a pilot, it would definitely get me interested in the series.

TWO THUMBS UP: The production design and acting

THUMBS UP: The plot, story and setting, and the tone

THUMBS DOWN: The complete lack of characterization

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The repetitive action scenes and overuse of Slo-Mo

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