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Dredd (2012)

Steel-toed Reboot

I've long believed--and this is by no means an original idea--that only bad movies should be remade. Honestly, what did Joel Schumacher and Marcus Nispel bring to Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, respectively, that Alfred Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper did not? Before last week, the only exception that sprang to mind was Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, which used modern filmmaking technology and makeup effects to expand the scope of George Romero's original.

Well, now there are two exceptions: director Pete Travis, writer Alex Garland, and, most importantly, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have breathed new life into the action genre with Dredd. Ostensibly a do-over of Sylvester Stallone's 1995 franchise non-starter, Judge Dredd (as well as an adaptation of UK comics anthology 2000 AD's most iconic character), the new film offers a gritty return to the ruthless, graphically violent heyday of Paul Verhoeven and proof that mindless shoot-'em-ups can also be beautiful, engaging works of art.

To call Dredd "mindless" isn't exactly fair. Granted, nothing about the story is original. Many have compared this to The Raid: Redemption, which came out earlier this year, and they're half-right to do so. Travis's film wrapped long before The Raid began filming, but both movies share eerily similar premises: police officers working a lawless beat get trapped inside a high-rise run by a demented crime boss. Their only way out is to fight their way to the top, through hundreds of heavily armed maniacs intent on staying in the chief heavy's good graces. The building element is new, but we've seen this bloody, dystopian, reluctant-partners cop movie a hundred times before.

But we haven't seen it presented quite like this. Garland establishes a bombed-out future America, where 800 million people have been crammed into a sleazy, drug-crazed hell hole called Mega City One. An elite squad of law enforcement agents, called "Judges", patrol the city and perform on-the-spot trials and executions of legions of psychotic gang bangers. Though the few glimpses we get of Mega City One suggest that corporations are still trying to gloss over problems with neon lights and ads for sugary drinks (even after nuclear warheads have decimated the country), there's very little to suggest that society is more than a year away from full-scale revolt. Garland and Travis take this premise and confine it to a single location for most of their film, a bold move--and an ingenious one.

Whereas most sci-fi blockbusters bombard the audience for hours with CGI landscapes and endless, epic-scale chase scenes, eighty percent of Dredd is confined to a "mega block" called Peach Trees. A cross between a city-sized shopping mall and an apartment complex, the bustling community is the perfect laboratory for drug-kingpin-on-the-rise Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) to develop, market, and mass produce her new narcotic, SLO MO, in secret. When a Judged named Dredd (Karl Urban) and his partner-in-training, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), pick up Ma-Ma's second in command while responding to a triple homicide in Peach Trees, Ma-Ma activates the building's nuclear blast shields--cutting it off from all outside interference.

Unlike The Raid, whose wall-to-wall "badass" fight scenes got repetitive by the forty-five-minute mark, Dredd's filmmakers give their story time to breathe. There's as much hiding and strategizing here as there is loud, explosive action, and the two are balanced perfectly. Travis and Garland also pull off the amazing feat of making it seem like Dredd is in real danger of not making it out alive. This is a franchise kick-off picture, after all, though the gang's relentless assault on the Judges is so absolute that I wondered just how they would survive the night. The answer, of course, is by being truly badass--which involves brains and cunning as much as giant gloves that leave knuckle imprints on criminals' throats.

The character of Dredd, on paper, is not really a character at all. He's a steel-jawed, comic-book archetype who takes a "rinse/repeat" approach to dispensing justice. Urban plays him as such, but the actor's innate sensitivity creeps through, implying a back story that we never get to see. There's a ton of warped humanity behind that badge and identity-concealing helmet.* In a later scene, after our hero has been placed firmly at death's door, Urban uses his mouth and body language to convey disappointment, disillusionment, anger, and something resembling regret--all in the course of a few seconds. It's a great, actorly nuance that I can almost guarantee no one expected to find in a bloody genre film.

Thirlby is also wonderful as Anderson. Her character is a wide-eyed idealist who wants to make Mega City One a better place. She can also hold her own in psychological warfare, which comes in handy when dealing with Ma-Ma's number two, a rapist and murderer with a penchant for skinning his victims named Kay (Wood Harris). I love that Anderson is an optimist who's also had the crap kicked out of her by life. She's not bubbly, or sarcastic; she's not comic relief. She strikes me as a serious-minded recent graduate of a police training program who simply hasn't been field tested. Thirlby is our gateway into this insane world, providing just the right amount of timidity, awe, and terror at the outset to make her relatable when things get rough for her character.

As villains go, I'm tempted to say that Headey's Ma-Ma is underused. That's not quite right. She pops up here and there to turn the screws, like a scar-faced Wile E. Coyote, and though she's the catalyst for all of Dredd and Anderson's problems, this isn't her movie. In the end, she's just a smart drug dealer in a world full of dumb ones; the film's climax reinforces this by being quicker than I'd expected, and free of the drawn-out, bogus tension that usually drags these films down. 

Dredd's unsung star is director of photography Mantle. His depiction of how SLO-MO deceives the brain into thinking that time has slowed to one percent its normal speed is used to great effect here. From the luscious water cascades formed by Ma-Ma flicking water in the bathtub to stomach-turning, first-person sequences in which people are shoved off of hundred-story balconies while on the drug, there are scenes in this movie that feel like museum installations on experimental filmmaking. Mantle and Travis never forget they're making an action movie, though, and include plenty of jaw-dropping, gory SLO-MO moments as well (when Dredd busts a drug den, we see a bullet shatter a young man's face so thoroughly that his teeth rattle around inside his exploded cheek).

You may recognize Mantle and Garland's names from their collaborations with director Danny Boyle. Both worked on 28 Days Later. Garland wrote Sunshine, which, like Dredd, took an established genre in new and interesting directions. Mantle is this movie's real "get", though, having won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and a BAFTA for 127 Hours. I didn't care for either of those, but I recognize the significance of an artistic master lending his skills to admittedly pulpy material. Everyone involved in this project performed as if they were making an awards-season Robocop, and the result is as amazing as that implies.

Note: It's been more than a week since I saw Dredd. I've pieced this review together during gaps in my crazy schedule, and am sorry that it's taken so long. In its first week in theatres, the film has plummeted from the number six spot to number eleven, officially cementing its "bomb" status. This is a tragedy (as moviegoing matters go) and a mystery. Travis's film is precisely the kind of intelligent, innovative, action movie the masses claim they want to see--yet refuse to support when it comes right to them.

See Dredd in the theatre, quickly. See it in 3D. Yes, it's worth the up-charge. In crafting a genuinely thrilling experience, Travis, Garland, and Mantle have given people a reason to look forward to going to the movies. This film is not a reboot, a rehash, or a re-anything-else. It's just Dredd. And it is awesome.

*Which, for the record, never comes off--save for a moment in the beginning where we see Dredd in silhouette.

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