Welcome to the sophomore installment of our recurring feature in which I’m accepting viewing or reading suggestions from MCC readers and sharing my results in the interest of entertainment science. Today’s suggestion came from Senator Brett, photographer and Thought-of-the-Day thinker extraordinaire.
Today’s subject: Dredd, the movie industry’s second attempt to adapt the iconic British comics character to the silver screen. The first attempt had okay visual effects, Sylvester Stallone reprising Cobra in funnier clothes, and Rob Schneider. Incredibly, the new version has fared even worse at the American box office, possibly because of rampant fears of an uncredited Schneider cameo.
What I knew beforehand: In a post-apocalyptic future, the grim and gritty Mega-City One sprawls across the land, contains hundreds of millions of inhabitants, too many of them evil. Whatever government remains has essentially given up on ruling and created an army of Punishers — duly authorized judges, juries, and executioners. The savings to taxpayers must be enormous. Judge Dredd is the best and angriest of the bunch. One of his frequent coworkers is Judge Anderson, a blonde with psionic powers. They kill crime.
Why I hadn’t tried it before: British comics have never appeared frequently enough in our local comic shops to win me over to Dredd fandom, though I’ve read a few such comics in my time. Dredd was usually the least interesting thing about them. He growls, he arrests, he kills, repeat. The science fiction trappings around him are usually much more eye-catching, but I didn’t consider that enough of a draw. This was directed by Pete Travis, whose last American release Vantage Point was more of a film-making exercise than an actual film. Also, the scars from the Stallone vehicle still burn.
How it all went down: As perfectly personified by Karl Urban, Judge Dredd himself is exactly as described above. After a perfunctory highway chase that ends in bodies, Dredd is assigned as evaluator to young Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, best friend of Juno) for her first day on the job. Dredd welcomes her with depressing statistics about life in the big Mega-City — 20% of all Judges die on their first day of work; the Judges only have enough time and manpower to address 6% of the city’s 17,000 incidents per day; she’s going to fail and he’s going to watch; and so on. Dredd is not quite into inspirational messages or slap-happy buddy-cop humor.
Anderson’s training day amounts to a big, bloody Die Hard sequel in which she and Mr. Dredd are locked inside a 200-story Nakatomi Plaza with hundreds of murderers, junkies, and innocents. In the hard-luck tradition of that series, John McClane spends the entire film with his head glued inside a bucket. That part may be Hollywood-awkward, but it’s comics-accurate, unlike that staunchly anti-helmet heretic Stallone.
Lena Headey (TV’s Sarah Connor) is Ma-Ma, the ringleader of the mega-gang that owns and runs the tower. She growls as much as Dredd, but instead of sporting headgear, she has to perform through unsettling facial scars and grungy bed-hair. Her gang deals in a drug called Slo-Mo, which drastically alters its users’ perceptions so that life around them turns into the world’s most pretentious Zack Snyder film. For kids in the audience who shouldn’t be watching this movie or most Zack Snyder productions, imagine looking around through the eyes of an overcaffeinated Hammy from Over the Hedge. Slo-Mo apparently also taps into auditory nerves and converts all surrounding sounds into either a subwoofer drone or an ambient-music sample.
Judge’s summation: The film is no more complicated than it sounds. Everyone is trapped in the towering tower of death. They fight and fight and fight. There are bullets, explosions, more bullets, double-crosses, still more bullets, and a giant Gatling gun with an unlimited magazine of science-fiction hole-punching bullets that destroy anything and everything except their two intended targets. After several minutes of nonstop rapid fire through countless apartments and walls, I’m not sure why that entire floor didn’t simply collapse and make the upper hundred stories teeter and tip over like a freshly hewn Christmas tree.
Any semblance of emotional content is conveyed through Anderson’s learning process. She sentences her first defendants. She bristles under Dredd’s absolutist judging style. She gets captured because someone had to be captured and the filmmakers didn’t cast any other potential female captives. At the end she has to decide whether or not to report for her second day of work. Her thoughts and overall performance elicit a surprising reaction from Stone Cold Dredd, one that could almost be mistaken for character development. Beyond Anderson, we have Dredd, all the stuntmen, and even Ma-Ma herself emoting only in the same steely, gravely whisper that says, This is serious business. (Around our house that’s called “the Steve Blum’s Wolverine voice”. It’s nowhere near as raspy as Christian Bale’s Bat-snarl, but it’s still not a vocal timbre that any sane human uses in conversation.)
Very strictly speaking, based on my limited Dredd library, this was faithful to the character in general (for what that’s worth), and in a few ways aspired to be better than direct-to-video quality, mostly in the department of visuals, which are never boring even when the characters occasionally are. (Quiet moments are not their forte.) The violence, like the city and its immoral inhabitants, is ugly and often hard to bear. The Slo-Mo scenes are pretty in a way, but slowed down to a shutter speed that could easily be mistaken for freeze-framing. One wonders if Frank Darabont was a cinematography consultant.
Ultimately it still tops Stallone’s version, but many people on this side of the Atlantic don’t seem to care. Right now might not be the best time to imagine a world where Dirty Harry vigilantocracy is the rule of law.
Two final notes, in keeping with past movie entries:
1. There’s no scene after the end credits, though comics readers with a keen eye may spot a credit for DC/Vertigo Comics mainstay “Jock” (co-creator of The Losers) as a concept artist. Ma-Ma’s spiky visual design certainly resembles his style.
2. I caught one veteran from The Wire: Wood Harris basically returns to the role of Avon Barksdale, except lewder and with zero authority or swagger as one of Ma-Ma’s head henchmen. The only other face that I recognized drove me nuts until I got home, cheated, and looked him up: Domhnall Gleeson, who played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films, appears as the jittery computer geek who facilitates Ma-Ma’s total tower takeover.