It’s not a good year to be Sylvester Stallone.
Taking into account the tragic passing of his son, the slavish self-mockery of his all-star action sequel “Expendables 2”, and the fact that the most notorious flop of his career has just been revitalized into a high-wired, uber-violent, candy-colored rush of a film. Rough stuff. 1995’s “Judge Dredd” has long been reviled for its blank treatment of the character (whose name gives the film its title), and so director Pete Travis has set forth to portray a bare-bones, brutal version of the comic-book icon. Set in a tumultuous, post-nuclear future, “Judges” like Dredd are a hybrid of judge, jury and executioner in one, deployed by the government to sentence and execute criminals on the spot of their crime.
Dredd is completely dedicated to his job, which requires him to be alternately firm and agile, stoic yet violent. In fact, we never see Dredd outside of his job, although this is probably because “Dredd” takes place over a 24-hour period. This lean approach completely reverses what we tend to associate with genre films these days: rather than the sprawling yet half-cooked nature of most sci-fi/action works, “Dredd” is taut and tight. By confining itself in time and space (more on that later), the tension is higher and the stakes more clearly understood.
“Dredd”‘s premise is simple. A crime lord — an attractive female named “Mama” in a clever subversion of macho expectations — dominates over a 200-story tower, where her crazed, drug-pushing thugs intimidate the thousands of residents into silence. Dredd aims to take these guys down, with an up-and-coming rookie, Cassandra, tagging along because of the value of her psychic abilities.
The film, then, becomes a simple progression from the bottom of the tower to the top, one that isn’t unlike this year’s Indonesian actioner “The Raid”. But where “The Raid” thrived off of a raw, ragged energy and hand-to-hand combat, “Dredd” is a glitzy, mega-watt, $45 million B-movie. The performances are strong and authoritative. Karl Urban, often seen on the sidelines of franchises like “Bourne”, “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Trek”, is given the headlining role he’s always deserved. The dude kills it.
Given some pretty imposing constraints — his eyes are never shown during the film, he’s often given ridiculous dialogue to deliver in a Christian Bale-esque voice, and a skintight armor suit — Urban is really phenomenal. Olivia Thirlby, long the indie darling of films like “Juno” and “The Wackness”, is given the opportunity to cut loose and blow shit up. Her character, unquestionably the most relatable of the duo, is a fascinating contradiction. Her duty is to blow thugs’ faces off with the utmost pragmatism. Her heart says to put them in prison cells. Attention to inner conflicts like this are what subtly grant “Dredd” some humanity. Some.
Many films assume that two people with guns pointed at each other is enough to label as “tension”. “Dredd”, on the other hand, is constantly ramping up the creativity, throwing in new ideas and gimmicks every other scene.
Consider “Slo-Mo”. It’s a synthetic drug, designed by the film’s villains, that slow the brain’s perception of time to about 1%, compared to normal. The film, often during the most frenetic, intense action scenes, will be shown from the “Slo-Mo” perspective of thugs under its influence. The blood-spurts glisten like rubies, the bullets inch by, and “Dredd” becomes something a little greater and a little cooler than mere action cinema. The thing comes alive. I only give this film a lower grade (relatively speaking) because, well, the goddamn title is “Dredd”. B+