The “series reboot” trend in superhero movies shows no signs of abating, and the latest attempt is Peter Travis’ “Dredd”; this hard-core adaptation of the long-running British sci-fi comic should largely erase memories of Sylvester Stallone’s abominable 1995 version.
“Judge Dredd” has been appearing in print since 1977, when the strip first appeared in British comic “2000 A.D.” Set in a postapocalyptic urban sprawl, the story followed a group of lawmen — Judges — empowered to not only apprehend criminals, but to sentence and frequently execute them as well. While Marvel and D.C. superheroes of the era were still generally likable do-gooders, Judge Dredd was Dirty Harry turned up to 11, a nihilistic cypher, devoted to the letter of the law but utterly devoid of mercy or damn near any emotion. This feeling was reinforced by a helmet that rendered his face inscrutable, except for his jutting jaw and sneer.
A perfect role for Stallone, I hear you thinking, but no, he felt the need to show off his formidable acting chops, and off went the helmet, much to the rage of the Dredd fanboys. (To say nothing of the love interest.) A Dredd with feelings was just wrong.
|Japanese Title||Judge Dredd|
|Opens||Opens Feb. 15, 2013|
|Date Reviewed||Feb 8, 2013|
Travis, together with screenwriter Alex Garland (“The Beach,” “28 Days Later”), aims for the original, harder-than-hardboiled feel of the Dredd comics, and largely succeeds — perhaps too much so. The story involves Dredd (Karl Urban) taking a psychic rookie named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out for her first day on the beat in Mega-City One, where giant tower blocks house tens of thousands of lowlives and where even the law treads lightly. (And it’s easy to see the perceived lawlessness of U.K. council estates writ large here.)
Dredd and Anderson are investigating a gang murder that involves three bodies skinned alive and dropped from the 75th floor of the block. The duo go in and seize a suspect, only to find that the leader of the Ma-Ma gang (Lena Headey) has lowered the block’s radiation defense shields, essentially trapping the Judges inside, with all 75,000 inhabitants being urged to kill them.
From this point on, it’s essentially a live-action version of a third-person shooter game, as Dredd ascends the tower block level by level, clearing them using grenades, knives and the requisite cool-looking firearm with several types of ammunition. You almost expect to see a score and life gauge at the top of the screen.
Travis works hard to give his film a distinct look and generally succeeds, digitally coloring nearly every frame to give a hyper-real quality to his Cape Town locations. The plot device of a drug called Slo-Mo — which slows down time like a DJ dragging his finger on the turntable — allows for some hallucinatory scenes, which are like beautiful little fragments of art video inserted like pauses into this mostly relentless shooter. Yet the beauty of the Slo-Mo shots usually belies the fact that they are depicting rather brutal violence.
Many great filmmakers have been accused of aestheticizing violence — Sam Peckinpah, with his own use of slow-motion, and John Woo with his “bullet ballets” — but “Dredd” is clearly guilty as charged. Blood flows languorously over the screen like so much paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas, with breathy ambient electronica on the soundtrack; a thermal bullet cooking a head from the inside is depicted in slo-mo so we can savor every grisly detail.
The ultra-violence here is enough to make even the “Judge Dredd” comics look like “Miffy” in comparison — only the “Heavy Metal Dredd” series comes close. A homeless person squashed to a pulp by a blast-wall slamming down or dismemberment-via-fellatio are just a few of the film’s throwaway “gags,” while it’s clear the filmmakers went to great pains to depict what a head looks like after it hits the pavement from 75 stories up. Hardcore, yes, and die-hard fans will no doubt eat it up, but casual viewers — especially those weary of the steady drumbeat of real-world shootings these days — may find it a bit of a slog.