Random Loot is a new series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views. You’ve been warned.
Although I greatly appreciate the vast depth of cinema of offer these days, the nuanced storylines and outstanding performances that we are so often treated to, there are some times when all I want is to sit down with a beer and watch a lot of joyous, utterly unapologetic violence. On those days, Dredd is all sorts of awesome.
Let’s be entirely honest, though, it’s not a good movie in the traditional sense; the storyline is largely non-existent, the acting is solid but unspectacular, there’s no character development and there’s exactly zero depth. But that’s because everything within Dredd is done entirely to serve the source material; Judge Dredd does not need a convoluted storyline, nor does he need a complex, nuanced performance full of emotional power. Indeed, Karl Urban perfectly understands that what the character really needs is to simply have an intimidating presence and cold, calculating attitude, and in this role Urban’s chin serves perfectly. The helmet never comes off, leaving Dredd not as a person, but as a symbol, a walking, talking representation of a grim world, in which people are judged on the spot and sentences are harsh.
Dredd knows exactly what Dredd is. It’s violent, brutal and dark. It’s everything that Stallone’s version was not, which is understandable as they’re both products of their time. Looking back, while I wouldn’t have done the same I can understand why they attempted to soften the character, removing the helmet and presenting him as more of a typical hero. But by doing that they removed themselves from what the comics were, and at that point it became a question of why they were even bothering to retain the Judge Dredd name. This new Dredd arrived in an age of the dark and gritty Batman films, and when nobody minded some grime and blood. It’s an accurate portrayal of the comics, albeit minus the political musings and satire.
The comics have explored Judge Dredd as a person in far more detail, but with the memory of Stallone’s film still surprisingly strong this new Dredd needed to get straight to the point of the character and distance itself from the 1995 release, and it does that in a magnificent bloodbath that grabs you by the throat and demands you pay attention. Dredd is no hero, and the film doesn’t attempt to paint him as one, while cleverly teaming him up with the capable psychic Anderson, who provides a more human element. She’s ably played by Olivia Thirlby who gives the best performance in the entire movie, although I do admit that in comparison to the other characters that’s no saying much. She brings a way for the audience to connect in a manner they probably couldn’t if it was simply Dredd blasting his way through the entire building, while still being pretty bad-ass in her own right. One of my favorite scenes throughout the entire film, second only to three mini-guns ripping through the building, is when Anderson enters her prisoner’s head and faces him down. Likewise her execution of a criminal early in the film and subsequent discovery of the man’s wife is a great character moment. And of course there’s a moment very early on in which she reads Dredd’s mind, and then seemingly avoids doing so ever again, leaving us all to wonder exactly what she found in there…
It’s easy to declare Dredd nothing more than a dumb action flick that anyone could have made, but I feel that’s doing it a great injustice. Sure, it’s absolutely a dumb film in regards to the fact that it’s a straight-up action piece with no need concentrate on the storyline. It’s a popcorn flick in the true sense of the words. There’s no time given over to developing the characters, for example. Ma-Ma may be the big baddie, but she has no other reason for being evil other than that’s just how she’s written, leaving something of a hole waiting to be filled by a more compelling villain, while things like rogue Judges are fascinating insights into a wider world that’s never explored due to the movie’s own premise and budget. However, a well-done action move takes a lot of skill, and simply declaring it a dumb movie is somehow disrespectful of that artistry. It takes just as much talent to create a visually amazing, fun to watch action movie as it does to write a sparkling script or flowing dialogue, and Dredd doesn’t get the credit it deserves. In a neat move the slow-motion shots are explained by the existence of a new drug in the world that is taken by inhaler, causing the brain to firmly believe that time is passing far, far slower than it actually is. The enhanced, almost surreal colors and use of sparkling water, glass or other things in these slow motion shots are a wonderful contrast to the brutal violence that they depict. Indeed, it’s just a wonderfully shot film all round, featuring great choreography. Rather than heavily abuse CGI, practical effects were used as much as physically possible, and means each action sequence manages to feel awesome without going so far over-the-top as to feel utterly unbelievable, again grounding the entire film and creating the sensation that a future like this could well happen. Dredd‘s fights are not full of wild spectacle and amazing effects, but rather have a methodical, weighted, savage feel that successfully paints Judge Dredd as a bonefied badass.
Despite all of its brilliant qualities Dredd didn’t manage to do very well when it came to cinemas, making it difficult to tell if there will ever be a sequel or not. There were a number of factors that seemed to contribute to its lackluster reception. The character of Dredd himself is hard to sell as he’s a relatively unknown comic-book character being released into a world dominated by Nolan’s Batman films and Marvel’s grand Avengers plan, while the shadow of Stallone’s Judge Dredd loomed surprisingly tall. Throw in the fact that Dredd is a reboot, which often comes with a stigma, and the main character never takes off his helmet and you’ve got a hard concept to get people to accept. It was heavily advertised in 3D, even going so far as to have it in its name, something which most folks view as a gimmick, while the R-rating, while completely necessary for bringing Dredd to the big-screen, limited audiences further.
Then there was the marketing. Vague billboards left regular members of the public with no idea of what the film was about, and in order to find out they had to head online to discover the debut trailer, which managed to excite existing Judge Dredd fans but left almost everyone else feeling underwhelmed, many seeming to arrive at the conclusion that it might be worth picking up when the DVD/Blu-ray hits the bargain bins or on Ebay for a few quid. The simple premise behind Dredd is arguably its great strength, but it doesn’t translate well into a trailer. The TV spots weren’t exactly memorable, either. Furthermore Dredd was released in September, a month that’s known for poor cinema performance. If that wasn’t enough September 2012 so a much higher drop in people visiting the cinema than usual, with some estimated it to be around 30% fewer.
And then there was The Raid, one of the best action films I’ve seen in years. Dredd was released relatively shortly after The Raid arrived, and given that both films used practically the same premise of the main character battling through an apartment block people naturally assumed Dredd was a rip-off of The Raid, sparking Internet tirades. The thing is, those people were wrong. Dredd had been written far before The Raid, and then got caught up in a 2-year post-production limbo. Pure bad luck led to the movies coinciding, and had Dredd arrived first then we would likely have seen The Raid getting berated instead. Did The Raid actually rip-off Dredd somehow? I honestly don’t know, but it doesn’t negate the fact that both are fantastic films in their own right, and portray radically different styles of action.
It’s a shame because the film met with great reviews from critics, and the vast majority of the public who went and saw it loved it. DVD and Blu-ray sales have been pretty damn good and it remains popular on Netflix, but ultimately it feels like the general public just didn’t know what Dredd was, and with the price of cinema tickets these days nobody wants to risk paying out on a dud.
Above all else what Dredd feels like is simply a slice of everyday life. While Ma-Ma and her gang are facing down the greatest threat they’ll ever encounter and Anderson is going through a thoroughly stressful assessment, the calm, collected and cool way in which Urban plays the role creates the sensation that this is just another day in the office for Dredd, a slice of his everyday life presented in movie form. While it’s no performance worthy of Oscar nomination, Urban utterly owns the role of Dredd. In many ways I find him as strangely compelling as one Richard B. Riddick, as played by Vin Diesel. These aren’t deep characters, but they’re utterly absorbing nonetheless because they’re the ultimate fighter, the man you never want to come up against. Dredd blasts through an entire apartment complex and comes out the other side with relatively minor injuries and an attitude which suggests that it was just typical day. That sort of pure badassery is far harder to get right than most people tend to realise. It requires a certain physical presence that few actors can nail. Vin Diesel as Riddick is a prime example, as was Tom Hardy in the Role of Bane.
Ultimately Dredd‘s biggest flaws do come down to its modest budget of $50-million, an amount of money that might seem pretty damn big to you or me, but that’s small fish when compared to what many films have. While it’s focus and simplicity are arguably its biggest strengths, it’s hard not to see the opening chase sequence and shots of Mega-City 1 and wish for more. Sadly that wider view is whisked away and replaced by the inside of a single building, leaving the world of Dredd as a tantalising teaser for a sequel that may never exist.
Indeed, because of its budget and clear flaws I can thoroughly understand why people just plain don’t enjoy Dredd. The action isn’t enough to hold them without more rounded characters or a stronger storyline, but to me that same simplicity is why I enjoy it so much. It’s just Dredd kicking ass, and sometimes that’s just what I want to see.
Dredd is really the perfect B-movie type action flick, to me. It knows exactly what it is and what its audience wants. It’s unapologetic in its violence and depiction of Judge Dredd, staying true to the comics by maintaining him as a symbol for what the world has become. It deserves a sequel, especially as the plans for a trilogy were already laid out and the second would explore the origins of Dredd and how he became such a legend amongst the other Judges. Sure, it’s a straight-up action film, but don’t look down on it because of that. it’s wonderfully filmed, well paced and features thrilling action.
And Karl Urban’s chin was born for the role.
Categories: Opinion Piece