The Pursuit of Justice
Is it possible that a film's reception is more fascinating than the film itself? Dredd makes a compelling argument for that. Having missed it in the cinema - because fuck 3D - I've witnessed several months of curious reactions to this second attempt at a cinematic adaptation of the beloved comic book hero Judge Dredd. Critics were divided - some received it enthusiastically, others with vitriol, and many somewhere in the middle. But on forums and blogs it was received with almost universal glee - pleasing fans of both action cinema and 2000AD. There even appears to be a casual but passionate grassroots campaign to bulk buy the home releases to try and prompt a sequel following the moderately-budgeted film's box-office failure. The film had attracted a minor cult before it even left theatres. Whatever I think about the film, the commitment of its fanbase is to be admired.
I've finally caught up with Dredd, and am struggling to see what all the fuss is about. Actually, 'hostile' would be the most appropriate adjective to sum-up my initial reactions to it. Action films by their very nature are a meaningless, fantastical experience - but Dredd offers up a world, scenes and characters so repugnant it borders on the distasteful. Funnily enough, this seems to be exactly what fans of the character wanted - uncompromising hyperviolence set in a grim futuristic megacity. And that tonal loyalty to the source material is what makes this such an ineffective piece of action cinema.
The Judge himself (played by Karl Urban) is indicative of Dredd's failure as a film. Rarely has there been such a faceless protagonist - just a masked man delivering his fascistic justice through a monotone and an endless hail of bullets. Urban may have grunted his way to a solid portrayal of Dredd as per the source material, but it's still a performance that is unavoidably uninvolved - portraying a one-note concept rather than a compelling on-screen character. Any basically competent actor could have growled their way through Dredd just as convincingly, and that's not a slight on Urban. Oh, and for the record, I don't consider Sylvester Stallone a basically competent actor. It's left to Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey - playing a psychic trainee Judge Anderson and pschotic antagonist Ma-Ma, respectively - to add humanity. And they portray their caricatures relatively gracefully, I guess, but again their efforts are depressingly scuppered by a script that resolutely offers them nothing at all.
That script - by the often reliable Alex Garland, who seems under some kind of contractual obligation to fit in a certain amount of 'fucks' into the dialogue every minute - is simply a repetitive succession of ineffectual one-liners and barely-developed ideas. The film's empty narrative - which basically has Dredd and Anderson ascending a towering apartment block to dispatch gang leader Ma-Ma following a triple homicide - would have been relegated to a brief prologue in a better resourced film (and while the film undeniably has an non-traditional finance plan, $40,000,000+ is hardly low-budget). It's just a succession of gory gunfights in dull corridors, with no sense of space or place. The bland direction by Pete Travis doesn't help - critically, there's nothing involving or tense about the action sequences in Dredd. They just happen. It may be in keeping with the canon of the comics, but having three identikit Judges (a couple of rouge ones show up around the midpoint) face off against each other does not make for a compelling setpiece. Their uniformity and helmets make it a challenge to decipher who is who. Most damningly, we're given little reason to care.
The film's one major stylistic concession - a series of slow motion, glitzy sequences experienced by characters under the effect of the imaginatively named 'slo-mo' drug - gets its point across first time, and then repeats it another three times with diminishing returns. Its not really a good trick either, recalling some of Zack Snyder's more objectionable authorial decisions, but at least its something distinctive (and mildly nifty when the film's speed flits between slow and normal). Given that its predominantly used to utilise yet more CGI blood splatter, however - (spoiler) culminating with Ma-Ma being hurled down several hundred floors, and landing on the ground floor with all the nastiness you would expect - it is simply another example of the film's non-ironic and fetishistic fondness for extreme violence. There are stabs at black comedy and crappy one-liners following the dispatch of the film's many nameless grunts, but the film's relentlessly graphic bloodshed is more discomforting than amusing. And this from someone who tends to like their comedy served black. There's no shock-factor here - the gore is simply nasty and wearily predictable, devoid of worthy satire.
Of course, the same complaints of meaningless, glorified violence have been applied to most action films past, even 2012's other cult phenomenon The Raid. That's the film that has been most compared to Dredd as they share (completely accidentally) a basic structure and restricted age rating. The Raid, though, benefited from Gareth Evan's elegant (elegant as can be for people unrelentingly beating the shit out of each other), tense direction and the extremely physical and go-for-broke commitment of its stars. The fights were varied and involving, with a vital sense of spatial awareness - all for a fraction of Dredd's budget. It also didn't linger on crushed skills in all their crushed detail. Dredd offers no such directorial or acting competence, and all too often drowns itself in a sea of crimson. Even that infamous provocateur Takashi Miike offers a scathing, caustic and thematically-justified wit to warrant his extreme content.
At least Dredd is relatively brief - Anderson and Dredd re-emerge into the sunlight of Megacity One after barely eighty minutes of gunplay and murder have elapsed. But those eighty minutes offered nothing but a parade of repetition and griminess. And that's what many viewers have been so delighted with - an uncompromising portrayal of a no-nonsense masked icon fearlessly navigating a dark future. For me, the very same things that made this a loyal adaptation made it an absolutely dreadful film.