Film Review: Dredd 3D (2012)
Review by Ben Bussey
How their grizzled, square jaws must have dropped in the Dredd offices when word broke of The Raid. Another downbeat, hard-edged action flick set almost entirely in a tower block full of criminals, following some cops as they fight their way up to the big boss? Oh shit. And the similarities between the two films do not end at the conceptual, as the aesthetics are also remarkably similar: grungy set design, low lighting, tight and claustrophobic camerawork, throbbing electonically-charged soundtrack. Take into account the fact (yes, fact) that The Raid is easily the best piece of action filmmaking in the last decade at least – and don’t just take my word for it, Keri dug it too – and the makers of Dredd may well have cause to feel some dread of their own. Da-dum tss.
I’m bringing this up straight away just to get it over with. Yes, Dredd has a lot in common with Gareth Evans’s gamechanging beat-‘em-up, but given the films were in production at the same time there is no question in my mind that those similarities are nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. Indeed, I’ve been informed by a disgruntled commenter on an earlier post that the whole concept is close to an existing Judge Dredd story entitled Escape From Kurt Russell Block. I can’t comment on how close the film is to this, as I haven’t read the comic in question. Indeed, while I’ve always been aware of the Judge Dredd character and 2000AD comics, I’ve never read much of either, nor did I ever pay much attention to the largely maligned Stallone film, so – The Raid-related issues aside – I was able to approach Dredd as a relatively blank slate, much as the bulk of the audience is likely to.
Casting preconceptions aside, then, what kind of a film have director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland put together? Well, it’s a curious amalgamation of epic and intimate. It takes us into a dystopian future, but for the most part underplays the sci-fi elements; it introduces us to a vast playing field in the shape of Mega City One, then promptly restricts the action to a single building within that monumental metropolis. While this may make sense from a budgetary perspective (this is a British film after all), from a creative standpoint it’s some strange and risky decision-making for a film that’s intended to (re-) launch a long-standing comic book hero and his singular universe onto the big screen. So, next big question – does it pay off?
Well, all things considered… yes, actually. Dredd is a gripping, grimy gun-fest with a futuristic spin, a dash of trippiness and a liberal side order of pre-chair Eastwood, which might not attempt to rewrite the comic book action rulebook, but is certainly less than dreddful. (Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.)
So, it starts out like any other day in Mega City One, as Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, above) takes out some scumbags in a high speed chase; as his job title decrees, he not only apprehends the criminals but passes sentence then and there (hint: they don’t get community service). Soon thereafter he’s introduced to a rookie named Anderson (Olivia Thrilby, below), once a street-trash orphan who is deemed to have potential in the Hall of Justice as she has unprecedented psychic ability. Dredd is assigned to take her as a partner for the day and assess her suitability for Judge status (maybe we can add Training Day to the list of films owed a debt…) However, a call-out to investigate a multiple homicide at the innocuously-named Peach Trees – a single tower block that is home to over 75,000 civilians – winds up getting Dredd and Anderson more than they bargained for. Turns out Peach Trees is all but owned by Ma-Ma (Lena Heady), a ruthless drug baroness responsible for the manufacture and distribution of Slo-Mo, a new designer narcotic that slows down the user’s perception of time. When Dredd and Anderson arrest one of her right-hand men, she locks the whole building down and sets her thugs loose. From that point, you just know there’s gonna be a whole lotta judgement going down.
If this all sounds a bit Paul WS Anderson – well, that’s because it is. I mean that in a good way, believe it or not. Dredd plays a lot like how your average PWSA film might, if only he had the common sense to let someone else write his scripts (as was the case on his best film, the recently 15-year old Event Horizon). I must admit to having seen nothing beforehand from director Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame), but he handles the slightly spaced-out, comic book and video game-flavoured action pretty well. I found myself reminded of first seeing Blade; that too accentuated its copious action with a somewhat dreamlike/off-your-tits quality, which I found particularly potent as the first six-or-so times I saw Blade I was at least moderately out of it after getting back from a night out. I get the feeling these would also be ideal circumstances under which to enjoy Dredd, the Slo-Mo sequences sure to be in-tune with an intoxicated state of mind. And I must admit, for once the 3D actually is kind of beneficial, serving to make matters that bit more out-there. Shame the cinematography doesn’t seem to have taken into account how the glasses dim the image, which can impede things somewhat given the aforementioned dark and dingy aesthetic.
Again, given I’ve largely forgotten the earlier Judge Dredd film I didn’t find myself comparing Karl Urban’s performance to that of Sylvester Stallone, and nor should anyone else. As long promised, this film wisely never shows Dredd sans helmet, and with his strong build, permanent grimace and five o’clock shadow Urban suits the physicality of the role with no problem. A pity, then, that his voice feels a smidgen too thin and light to be truly menacing, but at least he’s not desperately forcing the gravel as Christian Bale does as Batman. Lena Headey’s arch villainess Ma-Ma doesn’t have too much in the way of backstory either, but she too does just fine with her scowl and scarface make-up. Olivia Thrilby has to cover a wee bit more ground, as her emotionally uncertain rookie Anderson is called upon to give the film its heart. Thankfully, though the potential is there, her scenes never lapse into sentimentality.
It’s been said this could potentially kickstart a trilogy, and I for one would be happy to see it. Dredd is some great Friday night entertainment, offering plenty of bang for buck, and a hard edge the likes of which we haven’t seen in comic book movies for a while. If you’ve grown tired with how family friendly most comic adaptations tend to be these days, well, now you know just what to go see next.
Dredd 3D is out now in UK cinemas from Entertainment Film, and US cinemas from September 21st.