Theatrical Review: “Dredd” 3D
Produced by: Alex Garland, Andrew MacDonald, Allon Reich
Written by: Alex Garland
Cinematography by: Anthony Dod Mantle
Music by: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey, Domhnall Gleeson, Warrick Grier
Based on the comic series created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra
Let me get this out of the way first: Before this movie, I had next to no familiarity with the character beyond the existence of an apparently terrible Sylvester Stallone adaptation that broke with tradition and revealed the face of its main character. And my familiarity with that film itself largely extends to a preview on some forgotten VHS tape that I used to watch a lot and the existence of a pinball table located in a bowling alley from around the same time period that I watched said tape.
That being said, I was pretty excited to see Dredd, largely because I had heard about its spectacular 3D effects and slo-mo footage, which was shot using Phantom Flex cameras at 1,000 FPS, and also because word from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con showing was largely positive. By the time I finally went and saw the film in theatres this past weekend, it had only out for 3 weeks, but was already dwindling in show times, especially for 3D films. The fact that three family films (Finding Nemo, Hotel Transylvania, Frankenweenie) are currently occupying the 3D auditoriums probably has something to do with this fact, but also likely due to the relative obscurity of the character, at least on American shores. Luckily, I was able to locate a theatre not far from where I live, and so my roommate and I were able to treat ourselves to what is possibly going to be the most under-appreciated movie of the year.
Set in a dystopian future society where most of the earth is a post-apocalyptic no man’s land, and where populations are gathered together into giant cities with giant skyscrapers, Dredd wastes very little time setting up its world, and aside from the basic premise, gets down to telling its story while introducing bits and pieces of its world as it goes along. Judge Dredd resides in Mega-City One, located somewhere in the vicinity of where Boston used to lie, and serves in a crime fighting task force of Judges. Having the powers of both the police, jury, judge, and executioner, the film is subtle in its portrayal of the law enforcement of the future being arguably fascist in nature by giving Dredd a rookie sidekick.
Serving as essentially our surrogate into the life of a Judge is Cassandra Anderson, a mutant with psychic abilities who hopes to join the Judges and use the position in order to make a difference in the world. Through her, we’re nicely lured into falling into the trap of accepting the Judges’ methods as being for the greater good. Proving to be less than adept at passing tests, but with powers far too valuable to simply let her go, she is given one last chance at making good on her ambitions and is placed under the brutal tutelage and scrutiny of Dredd, accompanying him on an investigation of three recent deaths that may be related to the production of a new drug known as slo-mo. When they take one of the dealers in for interrogation, however, they find themselves locked into the enormous building and being hunted by the resident drug lord known as Ma-Ma.
Though I understand that the comics have a much more satirical tone to them, for the uninitiated, such as myself, Dredd serves as an effective introduction to the world, containing enough action and not too much exposition to really throw people off with yet another origin story. Seeing this film means that you’ll likely know enough about Dredd and his world for a far more in depth sequel that would then be able to explore the greater world of Mega-City One without having to explain too much about the system that Dredd operates in.
Though it takes place mostly within a single building, the universe already feels like a rich and expansive place with this film thanks to subtle details like graffiti on the walls, references to mutant prejudice, corrupt Judges, and signs of cyborg enhancements. Elements like these are introduced in a matter of fact and organic manner while still leaving much to the imagination. Quite frankly, I like it when this kind of world building leaves me wanting more, and I would be more than happy if they released a sequel exploring Dredd’s world in a more in depth manner.
As I said before, however, it’s not all exposition, and there are plenty of great moments of action and escapism. The slo-mo drug leads to some of the more stylistic scenes, and those high-FPS cameras are put to great effect in giving us a look at the world from the drug users’ perspective while also just making for some awesome imagery. The same can be said for the 3D effects, which are put to good use in showing how expansive the building is. Occasionally, particle effects will pop out of the screen and over some subtle black bars at the top and bottom — I can’t say this element enhanced my viewing experience too much, but I do wonder if maybe my theatre was just not showing it on a big enough screen. It’s not exactly raking in cash, after all.
Performances all around are very good, and Lena Headey stands out as the menacing Ma-Ma. Her rock star swagger (reportedly based on Patti Smith) and hushed, sometimes trembling line delivery keep her from falling into camp while making the drug lord feel like a thoughtful but damaged individual with a very dark past, and it, quite simply, works. Wood Harris plays the man in custody, Kay, and though the film is clear in calling his character out for his own crimes, Harris has said that Kay has justified his actions and his fight against the Judge system, and this understanding of Harris’ character’s mentality does come through in his performance.
Karl Urban, tasked with never taking his helmet off (a rule carried over from the comics that the Sylvester Stallone movie ignored), manages to emote enough with his mouth and his stiff, militaristic gestures. Dredd doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who smiles a lot, with Urban wearing a nearly permanent scowl in the role, and he seems to see his service as a Judge as not only a matter of public safety, but a necessity to human existence.
With those heavyweights around, it’s nice to have Olivia Thirlby along for the ride, too. Her character’s psychic abilities prove to be both an asset to the story and to the audience in getting to understand this world and its characters, and Thirlby moves smoothly from the understated eagerness of a new recruit and the weary disenchantment that comes along with being thrown into the deep end on her first mission. The movie is also smart in not treating any of the women like sex objects, and Anderson in particular is portrayed admirably by having her discover her own useful methods of operating within the system while still having skills that overlap with Dredd’s. The movie doesn’t “other” her as a female, in other words.
Overall, I was largely satisfied and even surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. It’s a very well put together, very brisk action film that has an engaging world and characters within it, and the performances all hit their targets without an odd bad performance to be found. Visually, the film is a low-budget stunner, with only a few moments that feel self-indulgent, and if you can still find it in 3D (or, if you’re reading this months from publication, buy it in 3D), I would highly recommend it — if not for the pop-out effects, then for the amazing depth perception that helps with the scope of the film’s locations. Though the story may not be an epic on its own, what we have here is a very strong franchise reboot that sets the stage for the sequels that will hopefully come. And even if they don’t, Dredd holds up well enough on its own as a well realized action film that is well worth seeing all the same.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5