“I AM THE LAW!”
Even before the unintentionally hilarious early 90s rendition of Judge Dredd, Sylvester Stallone had been on the downward slide from Oscar glory to silver screen infamy. If there was any doubt to his trajectory, those words answered the question once and for all. In his defense, that version of Judge Dredd was either made by someone who had never seen the source material, or was mismanaged by the studios into a parody of itself.
Judge Dredd was always something of a niche interest even for comic books; back when comic books were still a niche interest for film - the movie was, after all, made in the year 17 BA (Before Avengers) - there was no way something that grim was coming to the screen. Now that gritty is in and comic books movies are here to stay, it makes sense to dust the title off.
For those of you who missed it, the world of Judge Dredd is set within MegaCity One, a city roughly the size of Rhode Island that supports the entire population of the post-nuclear country. With that many people crammed in that small a space, buildings had to scale impossibly up, with loosely-termed “blocks” holding as many people as the Los Angeles basin. Against a noir backdrop of high unemployment, radioactive landscapes, and ironically compact urban sprawl, Dredd and his compatriots fight a losing battle to uphold the law and bring justice to the chaos.
For better or worse, Dredd gets it. There is no vivid, primary colored palette this time around, no goofy one liners that even the actors on screen can’t deliver with a straight face.
Instead, director Pete Travis (best known for 2009’s Vantage Point) uses the visual spectacle itself as his canvas, literally forcing the dark future down your throat via the movie’s 3D projection. Astonishingly, the movie comes out both grimmer and yet more accessible than its namesake.
Because unlike the weighty Dark Knight Rises, the irreverent Avengers, or the emo Spider-Man,the plot of Dredd is so beside the point that it can be retold without a spoiler warning.
Dredd himself is evaluating a trainee on her last day of academy to determine if she is worthy of joining the ranks of the Street Judges - individuals empowered to play judge, jury, and executioner all, in a city so overpopulated that justice is at best a quaint notion. On this routine exercise they become trapped in a tenement controlled by a fearsome gang overlord, and they must fight their way to said overlord and take her out to make good their escape.
This is standard action movie stuff, and if the movie was about story the lack of it would be a very real issue. It would be more accurate to say that Dredd is about style, and yet that statement itself is almost damning and needs explanation. Moreso even than Avatar, Dredd is the movie that sells the 3D technology that seems already to be on its way out, a fad no longer-lived than it’s 1960s red-and-blue predecessor. The 3D becomes almost a character in the movie itself, and certainly a storytelling tool.
Rather than simply throw objects off the screen to show it can be done (we’re looking at you, Harold and Kumar) Travis manages to actually compose the visual language of his shots in this additional dimension - no small feat when you think of the number of directors who have a hard enough time remembering the difference between foreground and background action. Similarly, Travis manages to keep his visuals as stark as his world, and yet through a combination of slow motion, composition, and 3D, turns the copious acts of violence themselves into near works of art.
None of this should be taken to detract from the movie’s craft. Where Stallone was basically Stallone in a Judge Dredd costume, Karl Urban simply is Judge Dredd, to the point where if you didn’t see his name in the credits you might not even notice it was him. Lena Heady borrows pages from the playbook she developed as TV’s Sarah Conner, turning them into a performance that is nuanced and unique. Olivia Thirlby may not get a chance to show off her rom-com chops as the psychic would-be Judge Anderson, but she manages to combine an almost naive vulnerability with a tough-as-nails fortitude that never once slips into the realm of self parody.
All the performances are top notch - they’re just excellent action movie performances, a genre which as a whole has never required the subtle expressions of Shakespearian costume dramas. The actors ultimately play second fiddle to the action. This is always a dicey proposition (The Expendables may have been fun, but not because it was good) but it works here, and works well enough that you may be slightly disturbed at how the violent imagery becomes almost hauntingly beautiful.
The result is a movie which, if you’re going to see it at all, really should be seen in theaters. The irony is that the best reasons to see this movie are perhaps the worst reasons to patronize the Hollywood system: the movie itself is not long on ideas and gives even less room for story, instead creating an experience that relies as much on the technology of its presentation as it does any storytelling conventions.
But damn if it isn’t a work of art in spite of all that.