Thursday, September 27, 2012

All Rise for the Honorable Judge: DREDD

Whither the recycled-food robot? He roamed Mega City, the post-apocalyptic metropolis in Judge Dredd, the otherwise terrible 1995 Sylvester Stallone adaptation of the cult comic. His sole duty was mechanically reciting his great sales pitch: “Eat recycled food. It’s good for the environment. And okay for you.” Irresistible. Such levity would be much welcome, if entirely out of place, in this new iteration of the Judge. The approach this time around is signaled by the new title: Dredd. Shorter, simpler, it’s a blunt, violent, grimy smear of an action movie. Director Pete Travis, working with Danny Boyle regulars screenwriter Alex Garland and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, creates a brute-force sci-fi thriller, a confined, claustrophobic din that pounds forward with an ugly relentless energy.

The conceit of this fascist futurist pessimism involves the law officers of this concrete wasteland of high-tech weaponry and low-tech social unrest. They’re known as judges, but really they serve as judge, jury, and executioner. They wear tight leather suits with dull gold badges and heavy helmets with dark shaded visors that obscure the eyes entirely, the better to fix a gaze unknowable at their impending victims while fiddling with voice-activated guns that can shoot all manner of projectiles. They’re basically Robocop without the winning personality.

Our hero, such as he is, is known as Judge Dredd, of course. He’s played by Karl Urban who, after playing charismatic supporting characters in all sorts of sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters from The Lord of the Rings to Star Trek, uses his leading role to speak all of his lines in a growly monotone. Even when he gets to utter the character’s famous tagline, such as it is, his line reading of “I am the law!” feels strangely underplayed. Still, he fills the suit and seems menacing enough, I suppose. The plot concerns one day in the life of this futuristic lawman. He’s given the task of letting a pretty young psychic (Olivia Thirlby) tag along. She applied to be a Judge, but failed the exam by only three points. Why a psychic would fail an exam is beyond me, but that’s the case. Anyways, the higher-ups give her the opportunity to go out judging with Dredd and see if she can perform in the field.

It’s a bad day for that. A routine drug bust in a 200-stories-high slum goes horribly wrong when the tough gang leader who runs the building (Lena Headey) decides she’d rather not have her drug-dealing operation discovered. She puts the tenement-turned-headquarters in lockdown and orders her underlings to kill her some judges. When this happens, the psychic asks Dredd “What’s going on?” You think she of all people would know. If you saw the action film The Raid: Redemption earlier this year, you’ll recognize the broad strokes of this movie. The two movies are built upon essentially the same shootout-up-and-down-a-skyscraper structure, although this time around there are way more future guns and little to no martial arts.

The movie’s best visual trick is the representation of the high offered by the gang’s future-drug. It’s called Slo-Mo and makes the user feel like time has slowed to a crawl. Travis and Mantle use it as an almost clever riff on modern action filmmaking’s love of using slow motion to amp up would-be super-cool moments. When a character plummets from a large height and falls very slowly for a very long time, it’s a funny little visual flourish. Unfortunately, that’s the best the film has to offer. The rest of the time, it’s just running and gunning in ways that quickly grow tiresome. Rather than using the plot’s confinement to the advantage of the fight choreography, the whole thing grows dimmer and uglier as it goes along. The violence is amped up beyond all reason, especially when it spills out in grotesque slow motion splatters. The terse characters grow only more uncommunicative and monosyllabic finding less and less time for their flat exposition and unworkable one-liners.

Now, I’ve never read the original comic books about Judge Dredd, but based on the evidence of two films now, maybe he just doesn’t work cinematically. The world is interesting, a wasteland of brutality and mutation that’s held barely in check by a brutal police state. And yet Dredd himself comes across as such a dud. He’s a bland action figure posing his way through feats of elaborate CGI violence and destruction. Stallone’s version was too goofy and nonsensical. This time around it’s way too dour, with monotone simplicity taking the place of narrative interest and characterization of more than the barest kind. The concept screams for propulsion, but at its core this movie’s all about slowing things down and taking it to its lowest possible levels of simplicity. It should work far better than it does.

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