After pining for it for about a week, I got to see Dredd, the Pete Travis-directed and Alex Garland-penned movie based on the character from the comic book 2000 AD. If you’re like me, who’s a fan of Karl Urban and geeky enough to follow Comic-Con news, then you know the hype has been around for some time… and you’d have heard of the enthusiastic response it got from this year’s SDCC. So with that kind of prelude for the movie prior to its release, naturally I had high expectations.
And it did not disappoint.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD. READ WITH CAUTION.
Be warned, people. Dredd is a bloody, violent and gory movie. Early in the movie, there’s a scene where people are being skinned alive. Then there are also scenes of someone’s head being cooked. later on the movie, limbs are flying, brain matter leaks through noses, heads get blown, faces sliced and so many more. But the strange thing is, I felt that this epic display of violence was needed for the story.
In a post-apocalyptic USA, 800 million people lived in a walled land that stretched from Boston to Washington, separated from the toxic wastelands that covered the rest of the country. One such city was Mega City One, where our story took place. People lived in fear and so fought against each other. The majority also lived in poverty, giving birth to rampant criminality where organized crime ruled everything. The ‘peacekeepers’ were these Judges who worked for the Justice Department. These Judges were, of course, also Jury and Executioner. Calls – specifically, punishments – were made on the spot. Naturally, they were mistrusted and even hated.
When a drug called the Slo-Mo (the effects were literally that – it made the brain experience things 1% slower than normal time) got on the streets, victims started cropping up. These victims were found on the atrium of a city tower block, the Peach Trees, dead from skinning and being dropped 200 floors down. A Judge named Dredd was sent to investigate. On the same day, he was burdened with the task to assess a rookie Judge, Anderson, who didn’t pass the entrance exam to become one but got in anyway because of her impressive psychic ability. So this hard-ass Judge and his rookie partner went in to grab the killer, a henchman of the drug lord who ordered the kill, and suddenly found themselves trapped in the building with no communication and no back-up. Then the attack for their lives began.
In a way, this plot is not original at all. The Raid had the same premise (so did a huge portion of Attack The Block and the recently released Tower Block). This is not surprising; apparently this is A Thing with British filmmakers. To be honest, this is a typical video game story, so not even a writer of Alex Garland’s caliber could be praised for bringing something new. But if you think this is The Raid 2.0, you would be wrong.
Since everyone is so intent on comparing Dredd to The Raid (with most people preferring the adrenaline-pumping The Raid), I’m forced to do the same. My judgment, though, is that the former has something more to offer than the latter. That is, two truly exceptional female characters.
I’m not a feminist (it’s a subject I’m not entirely familiar with and I don’t like to associate myself with something I don’t understand fully) but I don’t recall the last time I watched a movie where the very physically attractive females were shown without a single amount of sex appeal. And to me, this is refreshing. Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey, who play Anderson and Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal respectively, are superbly gorgeous women who regularly make glamorous appearances in real life and their other movies. But here, they look like their characters, wearing costumes that make them look bland and even ugly. They show very little skin, particularly in Thirlby’s case. So forget about sexuality – this movie forgoes it entirely.
Thirlby got the same costume as Karl Urban did, albeit without a mask, and she got to do the same things as Urban did. Her character was a little soft, but that’s due to her age and inexperience. We could even say that since her specialty lies in the brain, she didn’t have to use her fists to subdue a perpetrator. Even when she did do extremely badass things, we don’t get to see her boobs or shapely figure in tight uniform like we saw Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers. Meanwhile, Headey might have shown some more skin but she played the villain as a proper villain; not a sensual temptress with stilettos like Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman or caught in suggestive positions like Charlize Theron in Prometheus. She was just a villain and did evil deeds without remorse without trying to make herself look sexy.
And Urban, as well as his character, treated them both like equals. To him, one was a rookie to be assessed and the other was a threat to be eliminated. There was no fuss with romance, even something hinted at. There was no sexual tension or innuendo. In short, these ‘females’ were people. Good or bad, they were just people. Can you count how many films treat women as people, instead of women?
That ‘feminist’ note aside, I’m also impressed with the way Dredd was presented. Dredd was a man wearing a mask who carried out justice. And that mask covered his face except for the mouth and chin. Behind the mask, there was a man; the story teased us a little bit of the man’s background but didn’t elaborate on it. A lot of times when they are filmed, superheroes or comic book characters have origin stories. But Dredd didn’t get one. The narrative on this man’s past was cut off because the characters had to move on with the story. And yet, we can still feel something for him anyway, solely based on what he had to do in this story. For an actor to be able to make something like that happen – make us feel something for him without showing us his face or his reasons to be – that was a damn good job. Excellent, even. I doubt anyone else but Karl Urban could pull that off. He has truly owned this character.
The mask itself is an interesting object. Some people were outraged with Judge Dredd, the 1995 film of the same character played by Sly Stallone, because in that one, Dredd took off his helmet (among other reasons). Here, it stayed on the whole time. The fact that it did struck something within me – it showed me that justice should be faceless. It doesn’t matter who’s behind that mask. We don’t need to know. What we need to know is that justice will be carried out. It’s a little something like this: you make a mistake, you pay for it. No one’s going to let you go free just because you look at them in the eyes and appeal to their sense of humanity and compassion just so you could be forgiven for your crimes. Justice shouldn’t work that way. Real justice doesn’t. That’s what Dredd is all about: real justice. It’s cold, merciless, brutal and anonymous.
That’s why I consider Alex Garland, despite not bringing any originality with his script, to be the hero of this movie. In lesser hands, the story would’ve been just another event movie with explosive set pieces and not much else. But Garland’s subtlety ensures that this would be more than just an action movie. Usually, when he writes a movie, you carry it with you for days even if you don’t like how the movie turned out. This was the case with Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go for me but the pitch that Garland hit with Dredd is even more perfect.
On the more technical side of things, I found the special effects a bit tacky and over the top, which was understandable because this was intended to be a 3D movie. But even so, there should be a limit to how many times the slow motion effect is used and Dredd used it one too many times. The set design was impressive enough but the world wasn’t as gritty as I though it would be, physically. I would’ve preferred that the filmmakers spent more time in making the world look as real as possible (see Looper, which has a more realistic look to its dystopian world) than spend their money on making shiny – literally – effects when people are falling down balconies. These, however, are minor details.
Dredd is chock full of wonderful shots and scenes, all very effective in telling the storytelling. None of the film’s awkwardness in the technical department distracted my enjoyment for the slow burning pace of the story. Whereas every moment in The Raid (here we go again) was meant to make your heart pump along with the beat of each blow to someone’s body and make you feel it, Dredd is the kind of movie that forces you to be alert on your seat and has you employing your senses to notice where the danger to Dredd and Anderson is coming from. Gareth Evans thrills while Pete Travis chills.
Of course there’s no winner to pick from this so-called contest. (In fact, they both should probably use each other to promote themselves. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if indie films stick together to compete with mainstream cinema?) Although, if I had to pick the best written comic book movie of 2012, Dredd would be it. Dredd IS it.
I will end this by waxing fangirly about Karl Urban. This man… I don’t have words. He’s always had a powerful screen presence but I’ve never seen him display SO MUCH AWESOMENESS than in this starring role. He is so underrated as an actor it’s ridiculous. I think, in most movies he starred in playing supporting roles, he brings a lot of sense to that character. Even at the silliest projects (remember The Chronicles Of Riddick?) he could still steal your attention away from whoever he was playing. If there’s one actor working today whose projects I anticipate with a mountain of enthusiasm, it’s him. I don’t care how ugly the movie will be, as long as Karl Urban is in it, he’ll always rock in his job.
Score one more for Team Kiwi.