Low expectations are a wonderful thing. When I heard that there was going to be another film based on Judge Dredd, I cringed a little bit in my mind. Things didn't go so well the last time someone had a go at the character. By every yardstick you can imagine, the Stallone film from 1995 was a first class debacle. I'll admit, however, that I have a certain amount of fondness for it. It mistakes comics for cartooniness, but it goes so far over the top with that choice that it has a certain low comedy to it. But it doesn't have much in common with the hyperviolent comics on which the movie is based. The new movie, Dredd (2012, directed by Pete Travis) returns to Mega City One to check up on Judge Dredd. Much to my surprise, the character in this film is recognizably the same character from the comics. Color me shocked. The movie turns out to be surprisingly entertaining and surprisingly sophisticated.
The plot of Dredd finds our erstwhile hero still patrolling the city, acting as judge, jury, and executioner. There's a new drug on the streets of Mega City One, one that causes the user's perceptions of time to slow down. Like all new illicit drugs, it's the catalyst of a new wave of crime. When first we see Judge Dredd, he's in hot pursuit of a trio of "slowmo" users, whom he dispatches with customary extremity. Returning to the Hall of Justice, Dredd is asked to evaluate a new recruit. Cassandra Anderson is a marginal candidate for Judgeship--sub marginal, as it so happens--but because she has extraordinary psychic abilities, the administration is making some exceptions. They want Dredd to see if Anderson can actually hack it as a judge. Their first call is a triple homicide at the kilometer-high Peach Trees mega block, in which three victims have been skinned alive and pitched over one of the balconies at the upper floors. In the course of investigating the crime, they discover that the block is home to Ma-Ma's Gang, the source of slowmo for the entire city. Ma-Ma is entirely ruthless, having risen from the streets through a willingness to go farther than her rivals. She controls the entire block, and when she realizes that the Judges have stumbled onto her operations, she exerts that control and seals the entire block. Dredd and Anderson are at the mercy of the gang with no reinforcements coming. Their only option is to ascend the block and take out the gang at its head. Between them and their goal are hundreds of gangers....
It's an unfortunate coincidence that this film comes out so close on the heels of The Raid: Redemption. The similarity between them is uncomfortably close. Both feature a sealed apartment block filled with gangsters. Both feature a climb to the top to face the boss at the end. The Raid has less gloss than Dredd, featuring as it does the grotty environs of an Indonesian slum, and it features more chaotic violence and lots more of it. That's not necessarily in The Raid's favor, because it's all pitched at the same level. This can be exhausting after a while. Dredd, for its part, takes breathers sometimes, and some of its interludes--particularly those featuring the effects of slowmo or the psychic world of Judge Anderson are elegant pieces of pure style. A qualitative comparison between The Raid and Dredd is fruitless. Each has their virtues and drawbacks. I will speak no more of this.
Karl Urban, it should be mentioned, is a splendid Judge Dredd. He understands the character better than Stallone ever did, and plays him as a descendant of Dirty Harry (appropriate, given Harry's primary influence on the creation of Judge Dredd). Urban underplays his part for effect, and arrives at the kind of internalized, barely contained rage that is so much a part of the Eastwood persona. It works. When Dredd inevitably proclaims "I am the law," it carries a force of conviction that completely escaped Stallone's use of the line as a signature buzz word. Olivia Thirlby is less ideal as Anderson. Thirlby is a tad too waifish for the violent world of Dredd. She seems insubstantial for great whacks of the movie, especially compared to Lena Headey's monstrous Ma-Ma. As an aside, this is a film that demonstrates the occasional perversity of The Bechdel Test, because it manages to pass it without seeming like it's a film that passes it. Headey already has serious geek cred after her roles in The Terminator tv series and Game of Thrones and she burnishes it here by taking on a strikingly unglamorous part for the opportunity to absolutely devour the scenery. Headey has a long career ahead of her as villains if she wants it.
One of the things I thought about after I finished the movie was how completely wrong Roger Ebert is about videogames. Ebert, if you don't know, made a famous pronouncement that games could never be art. This is foolish on its face, because it privileges one kind of aesthetic experience--the humanistic inquiry favored by Ebert--over things like kinesis, composition, and performativity. Ebert's idea of art suggests that the only valid experience of art is in a kind of received information. It suggests that there is no aesthetic experience from participation. This, I submit, is just plain wrong. Ask a dancer if they would dance even if there were no audience and you'll get your rebuke to this. Games are participatory. They're a post modern art in so far as the the audience completes the picture, as the saying goes. I mention all of this because at a fundamental level Dredd is a videogame-influenced movie and not just in its plot, which is the familiar escalation of difficulty as the hero moves through the game's microcosm until he gets to the big boss at the end, but also in the way this is filmed. This has the look of a first person shooter, and it's one of a new breed of films that isn't afraid of filming its actors from behind moving the camera forward as the characters move forward. This is an increasingly common violation of the traditional 180 degree rule of shot/reaction shot, but it provides the same kind of immersion as a first person shooter. In terms of cinema, this creates a depth of space, because the characters are plunging ever forward into that space. Peach Trees Mega Block isn't the most creative piece of cinematic unreal-estate ever imagined, but the way the characters move through it makes it seem more real than, say, Shangri-La or, for that matter, the 1995 film's version of Mega City One, which was all backdrop, mostly, with no depth of space. The filmmaker tap into two decades of advances in production concepting--often by videogame developers--for their vision of the future. That vision has a lot more in common with the present than the original film, in part because it's shot in actual locations that have been dressed for the part rather than a soundstage with sets, but also because it doesn't try to exaggerate. The megablocks look like the same kinds of Stalinist apartment blocks you see in most new-ish cities (Sao Paulo, for instance), exaggerated only a little. The uniforms of the Judges are less cartoony than in the original film, too, and by hewing more to practicality than fidelity to the comic, you get a film that matches the spirit of the character than one that is slavishly devoted to him.
The film carries the immersive qualities of the videogame further by applying them to arresting point of view scenes that mimic the effects of drugs or the mindgames that Anderson is able to play with her psychic powers. This ends with a baroque variant of the falling villain trope (see, also, Die Hard), which punctuates things with a Hitchcockian shot from beneath a glass floor. It's a pretty amazing shot that enlivens a turn of events that is usually a cliche. And that's what Dredd does well. It's a completely derivative film, but it has a deep faith in the strength of genre. It lets those cliches play out, but it examines them each in their turn for ways to present them in new ways. It's mostly successful at this, and the results are often thrilling.