Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dredd: The Movie (2012)

Judge Dredd is one of my absolute favourite comics of all time. I can’t say it enough and now I’m saying it again, twice in one week. It’s smarter and denser and more exciting than anything else I ever read in 35 years of reading comics.

The new film ain’t bad either.

Here’s a dozen reasons why:

1. Got tone

There are moments where the 2012 Dredd movie looks nothing like the comic – its design and look often bears little resemblance to the stuff seen in 2000ad every week. But it does have one crucial thing in common with the source material – its tone.

It’s the way the story is a bit crazy and silly, but treated deadly seriously, producing deadpan humour and genuine tension. Anything could happen in a Dredd story, and usually does, but the main character always stands strong in the middle of the chaos.

There are dark laughs and groaning puns in both comic and movie. But it’s also terribly grim, and incredibly violent.

2. This could be the past

In fact, the tone is so right, it’s actually possible to reconcile the movie with comic continuity. This could be the same Judge Dredd who wiped out East-Meg One, or keeps putting Judge Death back in his bottle.

After all, Dredd was on the streets for twenty years before he debuted in 2000ad #2, and this could take place anywhere within the gap. Even Anderson’s age matches up. I got a real kick out of that.

3. Another unique look

The major difference between movie and comic, and one the filmmakers managed quite nicely, is the look of Mega-City One. Things like the Judge uniform are surprisingly faithful – while still looking a whole lot more practical – but the city, with its vast spread of low-level housing, punctuated by spaced-out super-high rise blocks, is nothing like the comic’s dense, ultra-high future housing.

But it doesn’t matter. I actually got into a debate over the look of Mega City-One at the local comic shop the other week – another customer was adamant that the look of the movie city was all wrong, because it wasn’t “his” Mega-City One.

This is a ridiculous argument, because there is no such thing as a definite Mega-City One in Judge Dredd. Much of the visual appeal of the comic over the years was that it was a rigid formula that demanded crazy stylistic interpretation. A McMahon Dredd looked nothing like a Bolland Dredd, but each vision was just as iconic.

The city was a bit more fixed, and still owes its look to those very first Dredd stories, but the crazy architecture has been radically interpreted by dozens of idiosyncratic artists.

In this bold tradition, the wide open space of the movie city, with a limited number of vast blocks that are only just starting to stab the sky, is perfectly valid, and a tasty blend of the crazy future shock of the comic and the real world we all live in now.

4. Tight

While there is no nostalgic fondness for the look of the city, there is some in the storytelling. Like the comic, the movie doesn’t screw around. It’s efficient storytelling that gets straight to the drokkin’ point, with a script that is just slightly smarter than it looks, as off-hand moments in montages turn out to have direct plot ramifications.

It thunders along on a wave of grim seriousness, punctuated by brutal bursts of violence, with few moments of calm, and captures the rhythm of a Dredd story, something recognisable in any medium.

It is unfortunate that the idea for this first Dredd reboot film has already been done incredibly well in the past year, with The Raid sharing the same plot. But plot isn’t story, and while both films share a basic framework, they’re telling completely different stories (especially when The Raid veers into the territory of family melodrama). 

5. Don’t forget to have a laugh

Besides, The Raid doesn’t have a character like Dredd, who shows pain and suffering with a slightly-more clenched jaw, and is a source for much of the film’s dark humour. From his ironic dispatching of perps, to the parts where he gets laughs from pointing out the blindingly obvious in an almost disinterested monotone.

There is grossly black humour in Dredd – seeing somebody’s head hit the ground after a 200-floor fall in ultra-bright light and ultra slow-motion, from beneath, is just horrible enough to be hilarious – but the real laughs in the deadpan of Dredd. He faces certain death with a resigned sigh, and kills 30 men without breaking a sweat, This efficiency, this no-bullshit approach, is always good for a laugh or two.

6. Pretending to be somebody else

For the beauty of the deadpan, the new Dredd film got the right kind of performances, which don’t go for cheap laughs and histrionics.

Often when an actor is cast in a film based on a comic, they take it as a license to go completely over the top, with a broad performance designed to grab everybody’s attention. This attitude reached its nadir with the widely ridiculed Batman And Robin movie, but has continued through the years – check out Nick Nolte literally chewing up the scenary in his teeth in Ang Lee’s Hulk. It has slipped out of fashion – Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are wonderfully repressed, and after the goggle-eyes of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is so laid back, he’ll end up with a bald spot on the back of his skull.

Dredd follows that trend, and there is remarkably little shouting or screaming in the new film. Lena Headey, who has already proven she can play an exceedingly unlikeable woman in Game Of Thrones, barely raises her voice as she orders men to be skinned alive, or locks down the whole block, trapping tens of thousands of people, and wanders around the film as if she genuinely doesn't care what happens.

Meanwhile, Wood Harris is carted around like a fool for most of the running time, but hardly utters a word (and while his Avon in The Wire was squintingly cool, Harris is no stranger to scene chewing, as seen in Southland Tales). Oliva Thirlby is also a terrific Anderson, mainly because she never tries to oversell her discomfort at the violence and hatred she encounters. It’s just always there, while she pushes herself on to get the job done.

Dredd is a pretty goofy film, but these surprisingly subtle performances, right across the board, sell the reality of this world. And like everything else in Mega-City One, nobody does it better than Dredd himself.

7. He is the law 

Despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to my brother-in-law, Karl Urban is one of the few Kiwi actors to escape the immense gravity of local soap opera Shortland Street, talented and charming enough to forge a career outside New Zealand (along with fellow Bourne actor Martin Csokas and Boba Fett's dad).

He is a terrific Doctor McCoy (where excessive eye rolling is allowed), and with a strong brow and laser stare, he can play the toughest of tough guys rather well.

Of course, he never gets the chance to use that brow or stare in Dredd, because he's acting with a bucket on his head. A gutsy move for any actor, Urban overcomes the difficulty with a quietly expressive chin, and a voice and demeanor that is more Eastwood than Schwarzenegger, snarling out Dredd's iconic lines, rather than bellowing them out.

Like Tom Hardy's Bane in the last Batman film, whose performace was all about pained eyes and an outrageously beautiful villain voice, Urban plays Dredd as a snarled whisper and a clenched jaw - severe teeth-gritting for moments of extraordinary pain, a slightly looser jawline of satisfaction when justice is delivered. 

Benath that faceless helmet, Urban sells the toughness and authority of Dredd. It can't have been easy.

8. Sloooooo-moooooo

The use of Slo-mo is little more than a gimmick, but it does work, largely because it isn’t really overused, and because it offers a little light and beauty in the dirty world of Mega-City One.

9. Boom boom boom

Like the acting, and the special visual effects, the music is something that belongs solely to the film,. something the comic never had. And it's a cracker of a soundtrack from Paul Leonard-Morgan - sparse and thumping.

The music of Dredd's world is a low, persistent throb of menace, pulsating into a beat as the action picks up. Despite John Carpenter's best efforts over the past four years, electronic music is still rarely used that well in big action films, but it certainly fits Dredd's bleak world far better than the usual orchestral mush. Moody electronic music can get the blood pumping in a way more traditional music can't. (See also The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack for Hanna, which was easily the second best thing about that film, after Eric Bana’s outrageous accent).

The score for Dredd can sometimes be a bit obvious, but that's just because it fits the world of Mega-City One so well - it's no surprise that Geoff Barrow's Dredd-inspired Drokk concept album sounds awfully similar to a lot of Leonard-Morgan's stuff. Nobody is ripping anybody else off, it's just the perfect accompaniment. The perfect vibe for this world.

10. The helmet doesn’t come off

This isn’t just fanboy pandering. Dredd’s facelessness is vital. The helmet doesn’t come off.

He’s the implacable face of authority, with no sign of humanity in his eyes. But he’s also an utterly ego-less man, dedicated to the law and nothing else. You take away the helmet, you see doubt in his eyes, and you see personality. Dredd would never show either.

The helmet doesn't come off. 

11. Sour times

To be brutally honest, expectations were lowered for the new film, so it wasn't hard to exceed them. (And as I've already pointed out this week, unfesibly high expectations invariably backfire.) The first Judge Dredd film left such a bad taste in the mouth that it managed to taint another cinematic crack at the character, almost two decades later, but it doesn't actually take that much to wash it away.

The new Dredd film isn't perfect - it's fairly unoriginal and sometimes a little too serious for its own good. But it is still a hugely entertaining and almost smart sci-fi action film. That's far more than Stallone ever managed. 

12. Credit where credit is due
Right at the moment the film ends, and the credits come crashing in, the first names you see are the names of the creators of Judge Dredd – John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. See, Avengers? It’s not that hard.

1 comment:

Islington Comic Forum said...

Nice write-up. Like what you said about Mega City One. The way they presented it in the film really struck a chord with me - tried my best to make sense of it here if you fancy a read: ?