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February 13, 2013

Dredd Review

Dredd is rated R for language, tone, and graphic violence. The movie runs 95 minutes long. This review, somewhat longer.

Judge Dredd opens with a sequence showing the young Baby Dredd being born in large birthing chamber, beside hundreds of other identical clone Judges-to-be. A long montage shows Dredd's Origin Story, as he's relentlessly trained by the Judges' Martial Arts Midwives. We see the Young Dredd, aged 6, heartbroken and crying as his most beloved Fighting Mistress is killed by a vicious drug dealer, and we can see in his eyes that Judge Dredd vows henceforth to rid Mega-City One of all drug dealers. This 25 minute backstory now revealed, we now proceed to the present.

Wait a minute, none of that happened. The movie begins with a short bit of Judge Dredd, as an adult man, narrating the basic facts of what Mega-City One is (Washington DC to Boston in one uninterrupted heavily urbanized sprawl), the "dying remnant" of a world largely dead due to some calamity (nuclear war, I think, but don't quote me), a city massively overpopulated and also in the grips of social degeneration into a barbaric pit of crime and murder. And then we see Dredd, with no Origin Story at all, in high speed pursuit of Suspects. (And then a very clear shout-out to Road Warrior -- low-angle camera shot of a man in black police leathers walking stiffly along the road.)

Wow, a movie without an Origin Story. I can't believe it. You notice they're doing Origin Stories even for heroes without superpowers now, too? Apparently Conan needs an Origin Story, because you need some kind of explanation how someone gets strong and good with a sword. The Solomon Kane movie (which one day will be released in the US) also gives him an Origin Story. Otherwise, you'd be like, how can this man be good with a sword and a pistol? It's impossible. I'm lost.

Anyway, so the movie avoids the Origin Story. Dumb. Every movie needs an Origin Story. How do I know how Dredd got trained in policework and weapons handling without an origin story?

But then we get some great movie-writing. Judge Dredd's boss summons him, and tells him that he's being assigned a new rookie partner. The partner is Anderson, who actually failed the Judge's fitness test (by three points) but has psychic abilities -- obviously a major boon to any law enforcement operation, so they're giving her a shot in the field anyway.

At this point, Judge Dredd begins screaming at his boss, "I work alone! I don't work with any wet-ear partners! I am the Law!" and giving his boss a lot of Sassy Catchprasing and generally carrying on like Judge Diva, making it very clear that he is a Lone Wolf Bad-Ass who is also an Estrogen Case on the Edge of a Menopausal Breakdown.

Wait a minute, that's not what happens. The boss tells Dredd that the girl only failed by three points, so she's a "marginal case," and Judge Dredd's only brief commentary is:

"It's not marginal. She failed."

Without even shouting it. He just sort of says it.

What horrible direction. Important character-establishing lines need to be Shouted with Emotion. A clear mistake.

This establishes him as a stickler for protocol and a hardass... but also a terse one. And that's all he says about it: He makes his opinion on the matter plain, and then does something you almost never see movie characters who serve in military or paramilitary forces do: He actually obeys the orders of his superior officer without further argument and attempts to carry those orders out.

Holy crap, where did these guys learn movie-making? Don't they know that that every single event in a movie must be filled with lots of jumped-up emotion, especially involving cliched set-ups (the Lone Wolf Who Won't Work With A Partner), with lots of Heroic Complaining about every single thing that's asked of him?

And that the Hero must Rebel from Every Order, even the mundane ones? Otherwise, how do we know he's a hero?

Amateurish mistakes left and right!


So, of course, now that Dredd has Anderson has his rookie/provisional partner, he begins systematically hazing her, asking impossible questions of her to, at various points, embarrass her, play pecking-order games with her, play a game of sexual dominance with her, and take out his ire about this assignment on her personally. We get a whole bunch of "comedy" here too, as Dredd pulls Funny Pranks on his Stupid Woman Partner even though they're in dangerous situations and pranks make no sense in this context.

But wait a minute, none of that happens. When Dredd gets his order to put her through a tough but fair test, he actually... puts her through a tough but fair test, asking her relevant questions (most of which she answers properly), occasionally questioning her judgment calls (but shrugging over differences of opinion), and also laying out with perfect transparency what will determine Success or Failure:

If she incorrectly sentences a suspect, she fails.

If she fails to follow a direct order, she fails.

If she allows anyone to take her weapon from her, she fails.

And then, those criteria being set out, he actually instructs her in proper policework, and is even occasionally helpful towards her. Almost as if he's a senior agent tasked with training a rookie agent, and almost like he actually does his job when asked.

Again, are these guys completely unfamiliar with filmmaking for the past 20 years? Don't they know that we're supposed to have faked-up conflict between the characters, even if they actually don't know each other and therefore have no reason to hate each other, and even if they're partners whose lives depend on the other other?

And what is this "following orders on a mission" crap? We know that the hero is supposed to Go Rogue. Ethan Hunt has Gone Rogue in four straight movies, and even James Bond now goes rogue in about a third of his movies. Heroes in military-like command structures defy orders -- otherwise, they're pencil-necked pencil-pushers and probably Also Gay.

But I'll overlook this mistake, because we get to some Good Old Fashioned Film-Making soon after. A radio call comes in; three murders at a 200-story acology (that is, one of those megastructures they keep saying they're going to build in Shanghai or wherever, where the foot of the building is four city blocks in size and the total volume is big enough for 100,000 people to live, work, go to school, get married and die all in the same building, barely leaving it their whole lives).

It's a complex called Peachtree (cute how the government gives the most awful of projects such an optimistic name), and Dredd gives Anderson the option of whether or not to investigate, as it's her case. She says they'll take it, and they do.

(It wasn't even a trick question -- when Dredd said "It's your call," he really meant "It's your call" -- another lost opportunity for Good Moviemaking.)

When they get there, they find out that the complex is run by a drug baron called "MaMa" (a contraction of Marielle Martinique or something). At this moment, Dredd realizes that MaMa murdered his first partner, 15 years ago, his best friend, and that's why he's vowed never to work with a partner again. And he vows he will get vengeance on MaMa.

Wait a minute, that's not what happens; Dredd has never heard of MaMa before in his entire life, has no backstory involving her, and has no emotional relationship with her whatsoever. She's just another vicious killer in a city of vicious killers; he doesn't register so much as a flinch when it's explained she began as a much-abused prostitute who one day "feminized her pimp" with her teeth.

He doesn't care. He's heard this all before.

Wait a minute, what the hell kind of movie are they making here? They're missing all the classics of every bad action movie for the past thirty years. Where's all the bad jokes, dick-measuring jokes, male-bonding homo jokes, and seething emotion the characters are supposed to have about everything?

Why, this Dredd and Anderson sort of confront their job (and later, their dangerous predicament) with something that almost looks like trained professional detachment.

You can't have a movie about characters with trained professional detachment. You need them SHOUTING THINGS AT EACH OTHER and SCREAMING HOW MUCH THEY HATE THE BAD GUYS and then Making Lots of Bad Jokes (gotta keep the audience laughing) and the near the end Breaking Down and Crying With Each Other, and, of course, then Falling in Love With Each Other.

Anderson and Dredd don't even kiss, let alone fall in love. And the Witty Sexual Banter between them? Nonexistent. A complete gyp! Why, they have no sexual chemistry whatsoever! If anything, it's almost like they wouldn't even think of sex with a colleague (almost like it would be unethical for a senior Judge to seduce a rookie under his wing), and especially not when dozens of heavily-armed gangsters are trying to kill them.

What's the shit? What's going on here? What is this boring crap where the main characters barely know each other and just sort of treat each other as professional colleagues? And then just work together because they're trapped together in an extremely dangerous situation and have no other ally but each other?

Again: Amateurish.

Who is writing this clownshow?

I think George Costanza wrote this movie when he was doing the Opposite thing.

Dropping the act now:

It works. It's credible. It looks good... a little cheap, but good. I do like the look. It opens with a sunbaked cityscape that recalls, I think deliberately, action movies set in California in the late seventies. (The Dredd comic book began about this time, 1979. And Dredd is just the Future Dirty Harry.)

The huge arcologies do not fill the cityscape; instead, they punctuate it, here and there. This lets you see how monstrously large they really are-- if the whole city were made up of such megastructures, we wouldn't get a sense of scale, as scale comes from comparison. If it was all arcologies, they'd just look like normal skyscrapers. But where most of the cityscape is normal skyscrapers and then one of these 200-story gargantuans tower over the skyscrapers -- well, not just tower over them, but bulk over them -- you appreciate how large such a structure is.

In the skies are flying some ugly vulture-looking black aircraft. You never see them up close, and they are never named and never explained. I like this-- this is the Denizen's Eye View of the City, as opposed to the Tourist's Eye View. The tourist's eye gawks and focuses on such things; the jaded denizen just passes over them lazily, as the jaded denizen has seen it all before.

By this choice, the director makes the audience member feel like he's a jaded denizen of Mega-City One rather than a tourist. It's a neat tactic, I think. Show wondrous things, but show them in background, without explanation -- like we're all so familiar with this we just shrug it off.

I don't know what the Vulture craft are. I would guess they're robotic surveillance drones. But I don't know.

I like not knowing. I didn't know what that big skeleton on Tatooine was, either. I liked not knowing what that was, guessing what it was.

It feels like everyone involved takes the situation and the characters seriously, and then, get this, wonder of wonders, I take the situation and characters seriously.

I also think they show a certain amount of confidence in the audience to get it. For example -- I hope this is no spoiler; it happens 25 minutes in -- Dredd orders Anderson to summarily execute a perp. He's attempted to murder Judges; the sentence is death.

Easy sentence to hand down. But not so easy to execute, as the man, now wounded and pleading for his life (and not monstrous at all, but rather a sad little man stuck in World of Shit just doing an awful job for money) actually does have a wife and kid.

Anderson hesitates; Dredd repeats, "Execute the sentence, Judge Anderson."

There is no argument about it. I won't say what happens, but I will say they don't have both characters Explaining their Moral Positions to each other.

See, we know Dredd's position -- he's a hardass in the first place, and he's been doing this for 20 years, so this ain't the first man he's killed in cold blood; hell, it's not even his 100th -- and we know Anderson's position -- Jesus God Almighty, you're ordering me to kill an unarmed man!

Amazing-- we know what they're thinking and feeling without them explaining it all to us. And also amazing-- we gain rather than lose impact by not having the verbalization of their emotional states in there. Almost like the situation and action is enough to carry the story itself, without the need of words.

And there's no easy way out of this: This is a world teetering on collapse, and a violent fascist police state has been called into being, and they work for that violent fascist police state. That's their jobs. There's no magic button to get out of it.

There's also no judgment about it. This is a very interesting stance for the filmmakers to take, no judgment. Or rather: No overt judgment. Again, they're trusting that we the audience knows that this is not the best state of affairs for the world to be in without feeling the need to insult our intelligence by telling us Fascism is Bad.

Yes, Fascism is Bad. We knew that. Thank you for not saying so. Because it's insulting. You actually trust us to know Fascism is Bad and just get on with the business of setting a movie in a violent fascist world coming apart at the seams, where no one in the movie notes Fascism is Bad because it's all they've known their whole lives (and what would the alternative even look like?).

Good, solid movie. Enjoyed it completely.

Despite them not pouring on the emotional arcs and such, there was a question I did get invested in. Not whether they would live or die -- Dredd's an Intellectual Property; he's going to die like James Bond is going to die. Pull the other one.

I hope I haven't spoiled things by telling you a franchise character will probably live.

But would Anderson live? And would she pass?

I actually cared, especially because she does in fact violate one of those rules Dredd clearly laid out (I won't say which). So her status is very much in doubt for most of the movie.

And I actually cared. And I was pleased by the resolution. And I liked it so much I watched it again.

By the way, how conservative badass is this line?

"It isn't marginal. She failed."

I love that line. Sums him up in five words. No excuses, no latitude, no favors, no exceptions. But he's not an idiot about it -- he is, in fact, right.

The flaws in the movie are mostly due to them running away, at high speeds, from Sylverser Stallone's 1995 movie... even avoiding things that may have made the movie better.

Like, for example, it's humorless. The deadpan, cynical satirical humor of the comic book (I'm told) is missing. I wouldn't have minded some Verhoeven-ish satirical elements here. The 1995 Stallone movie featured a mobile robotic snack dispenser which repeated its funny and banal pitch-line over and over:

Eat Recycled Food! It's good for the environment, and it's okay for you.

Eat Recycled Food !It's good for the environment, and it's okay for you.

Kind of funny, and sells the Idiocracy-like despair of the future in a cute joke. I love this thing in Dystopian movies, the endlessly-repeating stupid advertisements. Logan's Run sold you on Plankton, farmed from the sea!; Blade Runner sold you on Martian colonies and what was later revealed to be birth control pills.

The film runs completely from any sort of cheekiness like this and winds up being a bit over-grim. But better no humor than bad humor.

They also run away from Dredd's comic book uniform, which is risible parody of Fascist Fashion, with an absurdly huge golden eagle on one shoulder and an oversized heavy-metal badge on his breast. The uniform in this movie is very subdued with those elements barely present.

But fascist governments really do fetishize their uniforms like this! Such a uniform may be silly, but it is quite realistic.

There's also very little actual science-fiction content in this science-fiction film. Apart from the arcologies and Dredd's sorta-silly gun (which fires an assortment of corner-case projectiles, swapping between them on verbal command), I don't think I saw a single technology that isn't present in the here and now.

The film could have used one, specifically -- for most of the film, Dredd and Anderson are trying to escort a prisoner against his will through a project controlled by the prisoner's allies. But he never shouts out or gives their position away. Why not have big metal spider-like device that crawls up the perp's face and sticks its "body" in his mouth, legs wrapping around his head, to gag him? And ungags him -- and drops down to be a "necklace" -- when de-activated?

Obviously these are pretty minor concerns. These, and maybe some shots where funky lighting was used to disguise cheap sets, are the only problems I had.

As far as a Content Warning: The overall tone of the movie is serious, grim, and oppressive, and the depravity and violence of Mega-City One is displayed graphically.

Within the category of very violent, dark-natured movies, I would say this movie is somewhat tasteful and restrained -- but only within that category, if you understand my meaning. Only when compared to other graphically violent movies would this movie seem like they'd showed some restraint here and there.

A lot of sickness and carnage is presented and the characters hardly react to it. Their moral apparatus is deadened-- this is as common to them as grocery shopping.

Even Dredd, the "hero," is deadened to this. Anderson seems to be the only character with a functioning sense of empathy.

And on that: Anderson is almost the "hero" of this story as she's the one most put to the test, she's the one who has to learn, and she's the one with the character arc.

She's also the one that might actually die. Dredd, being a franchise character, won't face that particular danger. Anderson will.

It's hard to argue the hero is not Dredd in a film named "Dredd." And sure, I guess he is. And I'll even note that maybe he has the tiniest little character arc (and it's a good one, despite being so, so small).

Still, Dredd is sort of remote guy. He's not a psychopath, and he's not a monster, but he's barely a warm-blooded animal.

He's all dead inside, really.

Anderson, being more vulnerable (and more human), and also the viewpoint character (mostly), is a bit more relatable.

I'm surprised that feminist-inclined girl-geeks aren't talking about this movie. One thing I agree with feminist critics about -- female characters in movies are typically awful and have little to do except serve as objects for romantic conquest. Anderson here is actually a real character.

I Lied: I have to admit, they did do one Action Movie Cliche, near the beginning. Dredd does do the Let Me Get In a Cute/Funny Line Before I Kill You So Everyone Understands What a Total and Ultimate Badass I Am Because Check This Shit Out I'm Cool For Comedy Bits During Tense Shootouts.

And, as usual, it sucks. It's toned down, but it's still unrealistic. I excuse this based on the genre they're in. It's obligatory. I wish they hadn't obliged, but I understand why they did.

Once they oblige that, though, they do try to keep clear of the Typical Crap That Everyone Hates and Yet Every Movie Is Stuffed Full Of Even Though They Know We Hate It.

Oh Wait, The Ending Is Stupid: If you set up a heart monitor which detonates explosives if you die -- as a protective device -- do you:

a) Set it up so if the receiver receives a flat-line, or if it receives no positive signal at all, it detonates the explosives,

or,

b) Set it up so it only detonates if it receives a flat-line but does nothing if it receives no signal at all,

which do you do?

Bear in mind, if you choose b, someone can just shoot the device so it is non-operational, or take you out of the range of the receivers, or even throw you out of window to your death without consequence.

Guess which option the villain chooses?

But, look: So much goodwill was built up by that point I waved it off. I pretended in my mind that Dredd shot her arm off and then manually "pumped" her severed arm to keep the illusion of bloodflow going for the monitor, at least until the bomb squad rendered it safe.


Corrected the Quote From the 1995 Movie... The real quote is far funnier than I remembered. Thanks to @jimgeraghty.

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posted by Ace at 04:22 PM

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