Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Acts of killing, part II


There are 800 million stories in the naked mega-city.  This is one of the more straightforward ones.  In just about the best possible way.

Directed by Pete Travis
Written by Alex Garland
With Karl Urban (J. Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (J. Anderson), Wood Harris (Kay), Langley Kirkwood (J. Lex), Domhnall Gleeson (The Clan Techie), Warrick Grier (Caleb), and Lena Headey (Ma-Ma)

Spoiler alert: severe

I pride myself on my comics literacy, but there's a hole in my education and its name is 2000 AD.  Thus my knowledge of its flagship character is not encyclopedic.  But, of course, if you read comics in any serious way, osmosis is inevitable, and I can claim a certain familiarity with Britain's most successful comics icon.  Judge Dredd has always seemed entirely consistent with the Britpunk aesthetic of the late 70s, 80s, and beyond: never less than at least a little silly—but always just a little bit more awesome.  I mean, just look at those panels above—and knowing the context, as I in fact do, only makes it a great deal more of both.

Hollywood's previous go at the property doubled down on the silly but rarely seemed terribly interested in the awesome.  Compounding the issue, it got things wrong with the character that even I could see.  Sure, there have been a lot of movies that have benefited from Sly Stallone's droopy visage—but Judge Dredd is not among them.

In 2012, they tried again.  This time, whether or not Pete Travis and Alex Garland got it right by the comic, no one can accuse them of not taking the material exactly as seriously as it needed to be taken.  Which means their Dredd is never less than a little silly—but a lot more awesome.

Despite its taxonomy as a comic book adaptation—and calling Judge Dredd only "quasi-superheroic" would seem to unnecessarily derogate superheroes without really saying anything substantial about Dredd—Dredd's lineage can be traced through film even more easily than comics.  Its immediate ancestors go back three decades, to the years when 80s badass action cinema and its own brand of superheroics reigned supreme.

Dead or alive, you're coming with him.  Probably dead.

A living fossil that would've seemed vintage twenty years ago, let alone two, Dredd came out the same year as The Avengers but sits more comfortably alongside The Terminator and The Road Warrior.  Taking heed from such classics, in a way it outdoes them, bringing the whole movement back to its pre-Cambrian roots with a futuristic America founded upon the principles of jurisprudence laid down with magnum force by our nascent mega-city's first Judge, all the way back in 1971.

Indeed, it's not just style and tone that renders Dredd such a throwback.  In the very best traditions of the 80s action movement, it is also a work of science fiction, and like its film precursors—near-contemporaries of its source material—it embraces the hoariest elements of Cold War-era post-apocalyptic SF possible.  Between the matter-of-fact inclusion of mutant psychics and a premise that finds a way both to reduce the human species to a fraction of its former size and still depict an overpopulation crisis in an ultra-decayed urban setting, the only reason to suspect it wasn't made in 1981 is the sparing CGI and the digital cinematography.

This would've been in half a dozen 80s movies if they'd had the tools.

But the tropes Dredd so proudly embodies aren't well-worn because they suck.  On the contrary—it's nice to see them again after so long.  The atomic horror that once seemed so inevitable has subsided, now a quaintness of a bygone age.  Civilization, it seems, really just hasn't known what to do with itself since its defeat back in 1991.  But Dredd reminds us that the nuclear holocaust, done well, has been a wellspring of some of our most cherished and indispensable stories.

And now, due to current events, my dream of a Dredd 2 involving East Meg One and the Sov judges seems a lot less stupid than it did a couple of years ago.  Thanks, Russia!

That gets us to the important thesis statement of this review: Dredd is made so very well it is almost entirely perfect.  We'll, eventually, see why it deserves the qualifier "almost," but it certainly isn't evident in the first shot, nor the first few hundred.

The skill of the production itself is abundantly clear in just about every frame of that beautiful widescreen, and who couldn't love the audacious von Trierism of the slow-motion scenes or the splendidly weird camera and editing effects used to depict mutant telepathy?

But: first and foremost is the flawlessly-rendered setting of Mega-City One.  There has not been a triumph of used-future this total since Los Angeles, 2019.  That noble lineage is certainly apparent, but Travis and his designer Mark Digby have traded in Ridley Scott and Lawrence Paull's eternal night for a world that reliably turns, beginning their film with a hellish afternoon that, pretty much exactly like Do the Right Thing but without all the tiresome racism, suggests a tectonic break in society is only a matter of one more thing going wrong.

From the initial shots of the skyline, dominated by mega-blocks of apartment housing twice the size of the Empire State, to the neon, hundred foot-high emblem of the Justice Department upon their own milespire; from the graffiti on the walls in the mega-blocks, to the placement of a steel cage over a loudspeaker to prevent vandalism: Dredd's world is complete in its largest and its smallest features.

Even the inhalers used for Dredd's fictional super-drug, slo-mo—which does exactly what it says on the tin, and as suggested previously provides the film some of its most gorgeous imagery—look exactly as clean as you'd expect its scummy addicts to keep them.

Travis has excavated almost exactly the same vein of cultural catastrophe as the vastly more expensive but creatively bankrupt Elysium did the following year; but Dredd hasn't been bested in depicting the post-America in thirty years in either direction.

Sure, like clairvoyance would be real stretch at this point.

They say they don't make midrange movies anymore but Dredd pushes back against that kind of hyperbole (even if its ultimately disappointing theatrical run also won't help ensure that a whole lot of them get made in the future).  But at $50mm it still looks better than a dozen $100mm+ pictures I could name off the top of my head.

Sometimes the lack of money even helped: the Lawmasters were supposed to be done up with CGI, but the pure physicality of them turns out to be vital to their effect.

And even with his pauper's pittance, Travis is able to show the outsized scale of his mega-city, pulling back with vertiginous, ultra-high-angle shots that reveal it as the monstrous anthill it is, populated by so many millions of surplus insects.

Which brings us finally to a synopsis, but given that the plot is what it is, it shouldn't take long.  We begin with a monologue explaining the obvious foundations for our story: nuclear war; the Cursed Earth; mega-cities; mega-structures; crime; and, in the clumsiest line in the film (with only one contender), the establishment of a new order, under the dictatorship of the Justice Department.  Dredd and his colleagues combine, in this exact order, the functions of "juries, executioners, judges."  I'll note simply that there are two reasons, each wholly sufficient, that the conventional phrasing exists the way it does (hint for one of them: judges aren't very necessary once the executioners have already gotten involved).

The Chief Judge has forced a wash-out from the Academy onto our stern veteran, Dredd, for one final chance to become a Judge.  This is Anderson, and the Chief Judge's rationale is pragmatic: Anderson's mutant telepathic powers promise to be a most useful tool in the pursuit of order, even if she doesn't, at first blush, seem remotely cut out for the street-level work that comprises a Judge's duty.

She's bulimic!

But they're throwing her in the deep end and now it's sink or swim; in maybe the film's best line, but certainly it's best read, Dredd notes simply, "It's all the deep end."

17,000 major crimes a day occur in their sector, we learn, and Judges can't respond to a but a fraction of them.  Her assessment, Dredd says, her call; and she makes the fateful decision to investigate a gruesome triple homicide in Peach Trees, a mega-block slum—as we know and as they will soon learn—ruled with an iron fist by former prostitute and current criminal mastermind, Madeline Madrigal—Ma-Ma.  The investigation goes poorly, and the upshot is that Dredd and Anderson are trapped in the mega-block, faced with a numberless enemy that wants them dead.

Yes, it's The RaidDredd is, in the broad strokes and even in a few smaller ones, like a major set-piece in a drug lab, very much same film.  Yet I have watched each, side by side, and while I am too constrained by my ability to see and process that information in a cognitively normal manner to say something idiotic like "no two films could be more different!", their tones and textures, and even their goals as films within the action genre, strike me as profoundly divergent.

Both begin with a bust that goes awry, and both are set principally within a decrepit highrise that has come under the dictatorial, near-godlike thrall of a criminal gang leader.  But while The Raid began with gunplay it emptied its firearms quickly, going hand-to-hand as soon as possible, because that film's goal was to present the endless spectacle of the human body's inherent power for violence.

Meanwhile, Dredd's spectacle relies principally upon extrinsic means, namely superior firepower, often insanely superior firepower.  Ammunition is only rarely in short supply even when they say it isn't, and Lawgivers and regular guns alike are never too far out of arm's reach.

The difference is as simple and as profound as that.  The Raid's violence is drawn-out, physical, and thrilling, the bodies of its stars dishing out and withstanding tremendous punishment; Dredd's violence is emergent, sudden, psychological, tactical, and paranoid, because of these bodies' vulnerability.  Thus no matter how similar their scenarios look—action gods striding through hallways, destroying humans whose principal role is to be crushed—it feels so different.

The distinction is best drawn from the sequence with the rogue Judges Ma-Ma has hired to deal with the enemy her own goons can't handle.  Despite a surprising heel turn late in the game, The Raid never gives the viewer all the information first, so that they can witness the rats in the maze sweat it out for themselves.

(This sequence also includes my favorite single moment in Dredd, and highlights further what I mean by tactical and psychological.  Kaplan, one of the bad Judges, is tasked with taking down Anderson.  Knowing that Anderson's a rookie, and secure in what her own uniform advertises, Kaplan thinks it'll be as easy as finding her, pretending to be back-up, and blowing her head off.  Completely unaware of Anderson's telepathic prowess, however, Kaplan blunders into Anderson, saying little more than "hello" before Anderson reads her mind and guns her down in cold blood.  That we see this coming a mile away is in fact intrinsic to how pleasurable it is to watch play out.)

As we determined in our previous part, The Raid is hardly a movie devoid of character; Dredd does perhaps a bit more, and with a mote less.

Dredd himself is embodied by Karl Urban in what, if it isn't, should be a career-defining turn.  Urban is as self-sacrificing—unlike some people, he never takes off his helmet—as he is flawless, in his single note and unyielding scowl.  Another actor may have done something very foolish and attempted to give Dredd humanity; Urban removes all of it and then he stomps on humanity's stupid face.  Yet his boorish tough guy is never tedious, which is surely some kind of acting miracle.

Of course some of his actual lines are not very good.  I've noted the worst, but the runner-up is the so-bad-it's-good "JUDGMENT TIME."  ("Sentence will be carried out"?  "Judgment has been rendered"?  Just "judgment"?  How about a nice, clean "Ma-Ma—you're going to die.  SO ORDERED"?)  But, boy, does Urban sell the shit out of it.

Then there's Anderson.  She doesn't wear a helmet, because it interferes with her mutant mumbo-jumbo.  Of course, the real reason is threefold: Anderson's face is beared in the comic; Anderson is played by Olivia Thirlby, an attractive woman; and finally—this is the good reason—Anderson is the real protagonist of Dredd, both our identification character and the one who undergoes a dramatic arc.  One day we'll all learn to live with the idea that the transformation from a nervous, spineless trainee into an ethical killer and master of her own moral decisions is an arc; until then, Dredd will continue to exist for our enjoyment, but unfortunately Thirlby may have to wait for the eventual rehabilitation of her performance.

"You look ready."

Finally: they say movies don't have strong female characters and, to a sadly huge degree, this is true.  Even when they do, they tend to simply recapitulate those stereotypical masculine roles we love so much.  Well, Dredd is a movie predominately about shooting people till they die, so your options here are limited to "stereotypical masculine role" or "absent."  Let's say that, to whatever extent Anderson and the other female lead in Dredd fall afoul of the latter complaint, Lena Headey provides one of the strongest villain performances of our nascent decade, almost regardless of gender.

Almost; in a movie that must mention the possibility of Anderson's rape a dozen times, Ma-Ma defuses that nasty tension with a single line, that both makes sense strategically as part of her desire to avoid further Judge incursions into her gang's city-state and serves as a mercy that, thanks to her own ugly past, it's clear that she would prefer to show anyone when given the chance.  Of course, she wouldn't hesitate to skin you alive if it furthered her cause; she just wouldn't rape you without a compelling reason.  Ma-Ma is effortless authority, bored depravity, and Nth wave feminism, all held together with scar tissue.

Dredd's greatest foe: Judge Meth.

To everyone's immense credit, neither Dredd nor Anderson give a shit about the social roots of her criminality.  It's all there, and only there, in Headey's performance, and this achieves the perfect balance for a film which is ninety minutes of rising action till Dredd throws her off a Goddamned balcony, half a mile above the ground.

The exact staging of this climax is the perfect denouement to Dredd's uncompromising action heroism.  And that is the last time I'll utter the word "perfect" in this review, though I have used it so much till now, because Dredd has a serious flaw, a superfluous scene that is also a tragic misstep.

The business of a Judge involves, to a great degree, the act of killing, both in self-defense and in the form of sanctioned premeditated murder.  It is, if we look deep into our dark hearts, pretty much the core appeal of the concept.  Yet by no means did I wish Dredd to avoid the conversation this starts.

And then, even though till now they had done such a good job weaving it into the subtext, they do avoid it, like veering into oncoming traffic to avoid a small pothole.  This particular pothole is a pair of kids with guns that, somehow, manage to creep up on Dredd.  For a moment, I thought they'd go for the gusto.

But instead, Dredd sets his Lawgiver to stun so that these juves can spend some time in the cubes for the attempted murder of a Judge (the correct sentence according to the penal code? just guess).

There is nothing about this artificially-supplied confrontation that is either thematically necessary or entertaining, except—I eagerly admit—for the way Urban says "Why?" when they demand he "Freeze!"  We did not need to know that Dredd draws a line at about 13, while he spends the rest of the movie annihilating a slightly older age demographic with abandon.  Arguably, this movie about fascism in the future might have benefited from a scene where our hero shot down children—certainly, that would have been the bolder move—but I can concede to production realities that such a harsh toke might be best left on the cutting room floor.

What a movie about fascism in the future never needs is its loveable Nazi deciding to be nice to children.  Dredd requires this scene like it requires an epilogue where he adopts a puppy.  (And it's doubly unnecessary when Anderson, in a far superior later scene, shows the law's capacity for mercy when dealt out by less zealous hands, by judging innocent a sad perp who'd been tortured and broken into cooperation.)

Your mileage may vary on all that; but what renders the entire exchange brow-slappingly pointless is that classic fridge moment, when a few hours after you've seen the movie, you consider what the climax entailed.  Dredd faces Ma-Ma, who has told him in no uncertain terms that the transmitter on her person will trigger a bomb that will kill the 75,000 people under her roof if her heart stops.  Dredd shrugs, shoots her in the stomach and, with absolutely no basis upon which to believe this is the case, hopes that when he throws her off that balcony, she'll drop far enough to be out of range when she hits (and that going out of range won't also trigger the explosives).

Why?  Because with Dredd there aren't a lot of rebuttable presumptions for when the law says you die; you just do.

But, it's hardly anything that destroys Dredd's value as the superbly crafted action vehicle it is, or the character piece on Anderson that it largely succeeds in being, or the science-fiction throwback we've craved.  It barely compels me to mark it down—but it does.  Dredd is so close to perfect, it hurts more because it isn't.

Like any movie based on an existent property with a rich and varied source material, the idea was that there would be a whole Judge Dredd franchise.  That happy dream hasn't so far become reality—but there's talk.  I can assure the decisionmakers involved, the citizens are interested.

Score:  9/10

Other reviews in this series:
Acts of killing, part I: The Raid
Acts of killing, part III: Merantau
Acts of killing, part IV: The Raid 2


  1. I assumed that Dredd stunned the kids because the criminal code has different penalties for juveniles, not that he decided to spare them of his own volition.

    1. Entirely possible, even plausible. But if I'm going to get fascism, I want it served rare.