Sunday, September 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Dredd" (2012)

"Dredd" (2012, dir. Pete Travis) is an excellent film, full stop.  Visualize for me, if you will, a snotty film critic who thinks he's so clever for starting his review with a joke like "You'll... DREDD having to see this movie!".  Imagine punching his face so hard that his teeth explode out the back of his head.  Now imagine Judge Dredd doing it.  Feels good, doesn't it?

It's very important to me that movies, especially action movies, handle violence properly.  The brutality of the violence should match the material, and the filmmakers should be conscious of how the audience is meant to feel about said violence.  For example, "Drive" fell flat for a few reasons, mostly because it's head-crushing ultraviolence was completely out of place with the rest of the film.  Other movies that aim at a PG-13 audience and hedge their bets fail from the other direction.

"Dredd" has no such problems, which is important when your main character is a fascist supercop.  The film is set in Mega City One, an endless steel urban sprawl stretching along the east coast of the U.S. from Boston to Washington D.C.  Crime is essentially unstoppable, and the only thing nominally protecting the citizens is an army of "Judges", given the authority to assess guilt and pass sentence personally.

Photo Credit: Joe Alblas

What's fascinating about this movie is that its universe is so morally grey.  This is not about good vs evil.  It is literally a war between the criminals and the cops for control of the populace.  As Dredd engages in shootouts with perps, copious innocent life is lost, and bystanders run screaming as in actual war zones.  Most people we meet are only loyal to the Law or the criminals as far as it will save their own skins.

Of course, the fact that the drug that the criminals traffic in (called Slo-Mo) bears a serious resemblance to pot is not at all coincidental.  Lena Headey's villainous "Ma-Ma" is one hell of an antagonist, since her chief motivator is fear, not sadism.  A formerly victimized hooker, she killed her pimp and took over his drug ring.  Clearly she is still traumatized, and turns her terror into rage to control others and never again be the victim.

Director Pete Travis allows the violence in "Dredd" to aim for the entire spectrum of audience reaction.  Sometimes, when Dredd's victims are clearly evil (and often stupid) we are led to feel vicarious satisfaction at how efficently Dredd sets their heads on fire.  At other times, the violence is not at all pleasant, and we don't exactly feel good about it.

Thankfully, Travis never turns the violence into an endurance test.  Rather his film has a solid moral compass, certainly one more solid than its protagonist has.  The most effective device for this is the way that Dredd is teamed up with a rookie who failed out of the academy, but is allowed a last chance because she's a powerful psychic.  It is Dredd's responsibility to give her a final pass/fail on-the-job examination.

This is rather more brilliant than you might think.  The standard stereotype is that men are harder, and better suited to jobs like this, than are empathetic women.  However, "Dredd" literalizes this by giving her actual psychic powers: She can read people's thoughts and emotions in a way that Dredd is physically incapable of doing, not just because she's a woman.  Furthermore, after the usual "first day jitters" subside she proves to be precisely as capable as her mentor, but in very different ways.  Sometimes a little emotional intelligence allows for more effective ass kicking, which is just awesome.

SomethingAwful's review of the film is excellent, and like them I find myself with too much to say about "Dredd" to write a review of reasonable length.  One of their insights bears repeating: The film has a recurring obsession with violence against the face.  Dredd is never seen without his helmet, and a clear contrast is made between his faceless authority and the criminals on the other side, who are all individuals.  A significant amount of the violence in Dredd involves current or past violence involving people's faces being cut, or blown off, or what have you.  I'll leave you to fill in the gaps.

The most important weapon in "Dredd"s arsenal is not the non-stop action, or the stylish direction that only rarely crosses into showing off.  It's the wit.  The ill-conceived "Judge Dredd" with Sylvester Stallone tried to be funny, and was terrible.  "Dredd" is witty.  The entire situation is absurd, and no stupid one liners are required for thinking audiences to laugh at it.  Thankfully Travis trusts that his audience will be smart enough to laugh, cheer, wince, and think at all the right moments.  For that, I'm very grateful.

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