Movie Review: DREDD
I never bothered to see the Stallone JUDGE DREDD. It was so famously bad, and I didn’t know the source material at all, so it didn’t seem worth my time to see it. I know Stallone took off his helmet — a lot — which I gather is a Dredd no-no, and I’ve seen clips of him slurring and raving about THELAW, and how he “am” it, at the top of his lungs, so I figured I got the idea. Nowadays I have a bit of a morbid interest in watching legendarily “bad” films — the docket currently includes HEAVEN’S GATE and GIGLI — and they’re much more readily available than they were 17(!) years ago, so I think at some point I’ll probably get around to it. Especially having seen the rebooted DREDD, I’m interested in comparing and contrasting.
But, as of today, I still haven’t seen the Stallone vehicle and I still haven’t ever bothered to become acquainted with the mythology of the Dredd world. So, though I’m certainly dialed-in to the tropes of sci-fi and action cinema, I’m more or less a member of the “general audience” a film like this typically hopes to court.
I know. Despite the fact it’s been getting a strong showing of positive reviews, many of them effusive, each one seems like it must be a fluke. Surely a remake, of an infamous bomb, based off an obscure comic, could only hope to rate “not that bad,” and in its wildest dreams perhaps reach the dizzying heights of “pretty good for, you know, what it is.”
But DREDD, as much to my surprise as yours, is an out-and-out good movie, needing no handicaps or qualifiers; and if you do tag on the qualifier “for what it is” — a big, bombastic, effects-heavy sci-fi actioner — then DREDD might just be a masterpiece.
DREDD takes place in a post-vague-apocalypse world, in which the landmass of America as we know it* has been rendered an uninhabitable wasteland, and 800 million people now live in a single, massive city — Mega City One — stretching from what used to be Boston to the former Washington, D.C. To accommodate such a huge population, massive tower blocks — each one essentially a city in itself, with tens of thousands of residents — now dominate the landscape. Standing as the immovable object against anarchy’s irresistible force is the Hall of Justice, and its police force, the uncompromising Judges. Martial law is the only kind, and clearly has been for several generations.
The world-building is immediately more successful than TOTAL RECALL, and the film is a more powerful work of science fiction, because all of this is recognizable to our contemporary concerns. Environmental crisis, urban sprawl and decay, overpopulation, fear of a police state — all of these are issues we as a society are struggling with right now. It’s not hard to extrapolate them into the future and see a world which, though exaggerated, is nonetheless a vision of some nightmare or other many of us have had.
What makes a man (or woman; more on this in a moment) living — most likely born — in such a world choose to become a Judge? The corrupt ones, the ones looking for an edge or for the small, primitive comfort of having some kind of power over others, I can understand. But the believers, the ones who do it for the sake of order and justice (harsh as it may of necessity be), the ones who value humanity so much they’ve made the choice to sacrifice their own to protect it — the ones like Judge Dredd — where do they come from? What makes them believe?
DREDD is not interested in answering — or even so much as acknowledging — this question, and I actually appreciate the film more for it. It shows just enough of Dredd making certain decisions — offering leniency, however slight, on a few occasions — that I get the sense there’s much more to this character than just what we see in the two hours of this film. Most would-be franchises try to “leave things open” for a sequel in terms of plot, leaving loose ends dangling to be tied up, one hopes, in future installments. This often backfires, though, because the film at hand winds up feeling incomplete, usually leading to poor reviews and no sequel. DREDD is a self-contained film which wraps up its plot neat and tidy, but leaves things open to be discovered, explored, and resolved about the character, which is far more compelling.
And what is the plot? Most films like this tend to get their heads up their own asses deciding they need to dive into the mythology, explore the psychology of the main character. Most movies like this would make the plot about the Judges, probably have it be about corruption within the system and the titular character has to decide between his loyalty and his principles. Movies like this tend to become about revolution. Instead, DREDD — as can be seen in the trailer — focuses effectively on a “day in the life” experience of Judge Dredd and his rookie partner, who get trapped in one of the tower blocks by the crime lord who runs it, and must try to survive while they attempt to complete their mission.
Those who have seen THE RAID: REDEMPTION are right to raise an eyebrow at the familiarity of the set-up, but the execution of each film is quite different (DREDD is not a martial arts film, for one thing) and neither detracts from the enjoyment of the other.
One of the real surprises for me is how smart and tight the writing is on DREDD. Economy of detail, stakes constantly rising, characters’ choices and behaviors are always justified but they don’t spend too much time explaining themselves. The film trusts the audience — and itself — in a way few genre films do. When the rookie Judge Anderson must execute her first-ever criminal, she doesn’t give any long speeches before or after about how she’s never done it before, doesn’t get all hysterical and useless. Judge Dredd doesn’t have time for that shit, and neither do we. Like him, we know what happened there, and like him, we’re just watching to see how she copes with it. There’s a lot of that in the film, stuff the movie knows we get and therefore, blissfully, leaves unsaid.
A film like this — in a brutal world where summary execution of criminals by law enforcement is the norm — needs to be not just an R-rating, but a hard R; DREDD hits the sweet spot of being unflinching without being unbearable, though your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for blood and gore. It’s not SAW — it doesn’t revel in the brutality — but it also doesn’t turn away, not immediately. This is how this world is, the movie tells us. You wanted to see, so look at it.
The direction is also surprisingly confident and, believe it or not, restrained. Despite having a built-in excuse for bullet-time action — the story involves a drug called, appropriately, “Slow Mo,” which heightens the user’s perception and makes time seem to slow to a crawl — it’s used to tell the story, not to show off. There’s precious little showing off here, no impossible over-the-top camera moves or crazy editing (with the exception of a few well-motivated moments). It’s shot well, but simply, allowing the film to tell the story and speak for itself rather than become lost in the land of style.** It basically pretends it’s a low-budget film being shot in this world, which makes it all feel much more real and — even in 2D — immersive.
Speaking of which, I saw it in 2D but, for the first time, I’m strongly considering making my second viewing 3D. It’s a great movie in 2D, without any of the awkward, forced staging of a film designed to get in your face (I’m looking at you, TINTIN), yet there are moments in the film which I could see being pretty breathtaking with the added depth if the 3D is done well, which those who have seen it that way say it is.
As with RECALL, the VFX are so good, and so pervasive without being obtrusive I have to give them a nod. The sun-bleached city exteriors are phenomenal, and I only know the interiors of the tower block are VFX (shots within the massive courtyard/atrium anyway) because it’s impossible to build such a location. I couldn’t begin to guess where the set ends and the extensions begin.
Most surprising, though, was how a movie like this — a big, explodey, testosterone-fueled thrill-ride — was also the most quietly feminist movie I’ve seen in some time. Though the movie revolves around Judge Dredd, many of the other characters are powerful women, including: Dredd’s boss; the film’s archvillain; and of course Dredd’s psychic cohort. More importantly, the fact they are powerful women is considered entirely unremarkable in their world, not considered emasculating by the male characters nor by the filmmakers. Their wardrobes aren’t sexualized — female Judges dress pretty much the same way male Judges do — and the rapey tropes brought to the table by one particular character are cleverly subverted without treating the victim as being responsible for the actions of her victimizer. It’s not an overt capital-M Message of the movie, but I like the way it treated gender equality as perfectly normative, the way it showed men can still be strong and powerful without having to “put women in their place” to prove it, something even movies that do attempt such a Message sometimes make a hash of.
It’s not doing well at the box office, no doubt because many people — understandably — can’t get their mind around the idea of a Judge Dredd movie being worth a tin shit. But despite being an adaptation and a remake, DREDD is the kind of sci-fi thriller fans of the genre crave. I know you’re all looking forward to LOOPER this weekend with that exact craving in mind, but please, please also make the time to check out DREDD and give it a bump. You won’t regret it, and I want a sequel.
* As with THE HUNGER GAMES and many other such post-apocalyptic stories, the question of what’s happening in the rest of the world is ignored.
** The movie also eschews the orange-and-teal grading of a typical blockbuster, opting for simple naturalism, a clean image of a dirty world.