Ten Word or Less Review: Guilty…of kicking ass.
17 years ago I went to the theater and saw Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. A decision I still regret. I can’t tell you why I did it other than I had no life and thus nothing better to do. It looked like it would be loud, agonizing crap. It was. Every thing about it was awful, hokey and stupid. From its hammy performances, everyone is always ACTING, to its idiotic costumes. Stallone looked like a shiny, idiotic, football player from a planet in the Flash Gordon universe. The plot was stuffed with silly conspiracies about clone judges, there was a 10 foot tall killer robot, an evil twin brother, cannibal hillbilly mutants and Rob Schneider screaming at all of it. He’s practically a template for Jar Jar Binks. Judge Dredd stands as a textbook example of how bloated, big budget movie making can go completely haywire at every single turn because bad ideas and egos run unchecked. It was a massive failure for Stallone and indicated that the comeback he was on after Cliffhanger and Demolition Man was not meant to last. Despite all of that,17 years later, I went to go see Dredd again. Even though now I have a life and better things to do.
Dredd fans, whoever they are, kept hope alive that someone would eventually adapt their violent, sadistic underground comic with a bit more respect to the source material. Something as simple as keeping his helmet on, one of Dredd’s defining characteristics, was something the old movie couldn’t adhere to. Stallone lasted 10 minutes in that helmet before he had to flash his meaty mug. Patience pays off and 17 years later this Dirty Harry of the future has another chance at movie success, and lucky for him, the people making Dredd took note of every single thing Stallone’s movie attempted and have done the exact opposite. Where there was gloss, there’s now grit. Where there was sprawling, incoherent story, there’s concise, tight plotting. Where the first film was tepidly R-rated, the producers were begging for a PG-13 rating, there is now uncompromised R-rated mayhem. Where the helmet came off, it now stays on. That’s more like it. Dredd is a grizzled piece of sci-fi pulp which stays focused and on target, refusing to be distracted by killer robots, twin brothers or annoying sidekicks.
Set in the distant future, America’s remains are walled up in Mega City, a sprawling, metropolis which houses the remaining populace, stretching the entire northeast of the continent. The rest is nuclear wasteland. Chaos and mayhem reign supreme and left to control the anarchy are judges, cops who confront, prosecute and judge law breakers in a matter of seconds. It usually results in people being shot and recycled. Visions of Soylent Green? Dredd focuses it’s story on one 200 story apartment complex, there are hundreds, where a drug lord named Mama (Lena Headey) distributes slo-mo, a mind altering substance which slows down human perception to 1% of normal speed. In short, everything becomes incredibly psychedelic and groovy looking in the best White Rabbit kind of way. Mama has some underlings skinned, yes skinned, and thrown off the 200th floor for being stupid, which is just sick and twisted enough to warrant the attention of the authorities. It’s a judgement call really. Dredd shows up, rookie partner with psychic abilities in tow, and the carnage begins. Mama walls up the building and sets her small army out to kill Dredd and the mandatory rookie partner, something which of course proves much more difficult than anticipated. That’s Dredd in a nutshell. Two cops stuck in a building with a bunch of people out to shoot them in the head. And everything is so much better that way.
The scope and tone of Dredd is more compact and accessible than it’s gargantuan, cartoonish predecessor. Mega City is 100’s of square miles of urban sprawl we can get a sense of realism from. Director Pete Travis doesn’t over glitz his urban Hell of the future, instead opting to build a world which looks convincing and believable. His FX guys use CGI to construct visuals we can believe in, not create a fabricated fantasy land which feels tactless and looks silly. Also, the contained, ‘day in the life of a judge’ styled story keeps all the tendencies to indulge in future shock at arms length. There are even some clever satirical barbs here and there. After a massive gun battle with scores of dead pedestrians the PA system flippantly states that the food court will reopen in 30 minutes. Paul Verhoven would approve. Alex Garland’s screenplay sticks to the basics and doesn’t wonder off task, but if there’s a downside it’s that the grim sense of humor is dished out too sparingly. A few more pointed barbs could have lightened the mood which does grow somewhat oppressive as things march on. For a bit I thought Dredd might be an heir to Verhoven’s classic Robo Cop, but such grandiosity not in the cards. Those who complain that Dredd is too similar too this years underground Korean import The Raid will be hard to argue against. They are nearly identical movies and in a fight I take The Raid, but that’s no knock against Dredd. It isn’t fair to complain when something isn’t as crazy as the craziest thing ever.
Stallone’s performance has been rightly ignored and forgotten by new Judge Karl Urban (Star Trek). The go to guy when you need a third tier character to carry or gun or wield a sword has been looking for his own stand alone action vehicle for a while now. May Doom and Pathfinder be mercifully wiped away from movie history. Urban sticks the helmet on, turns the growl factor up to 11, turns his mouth down, makes with the coldhearted quips and just runs with it. None of this is that hard. Jason Statham could have done this in his sleep but Judge Dredd doesn’t kick anybody. Dredd is straight, one-dimensional, macho sadism and Urban is fine with this. He makes no effort to over complicate that which isn’t. Helping out a great deal is a decent costume. Stallone’s Dredd looked like a flashy moron in golden shoulder pads. Urban looks like a weathered cop in a dirty uniform. The rest of the cast is fairly minor. As rookie partner with psychic powers, a gimmick that doesn’t blow up in their face, Olivia Thirlby holds her own against Urban and his upside down smile. Lena Headey is the one underwhelming spot. She’s okay as a scarfaced, drug dealing crazy but she’s nothing special. Those hoping for a radical turn from the Game of Thrones scenery chewer will probably feel a little underwhelmed by her generally subdued screen presence.
17 years after Stallone laid a monumental turd on his skeptical fans a couple of smart lads have come along with a fraction of the money and pulled the character he wrecked out of the garbage. Make no mistake, Dredd is not important, deep or meaningful. It’s nothing more than pulpy, sadistic, comic book nonsense done right. But that in itself seems to be so elusive for so many, it’s fun to enjoy when it happens. Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait 17 years for Dredd to return to screens again to blast some ballsy action movie carnage into our movie going lives.