Film reboots are a tricky business at the best of times; they generally reflect a property that has been run irredeemably into the ground prior (Batman Begins), or indicate crass commercial calculations and complicated rights-related issues (The Amazing Spider-Man). However, the filmmakers behind Dredd, the latest take on John Wagner’s hugely popular 2000 AD comic, are tasked with a rare opportunity – to take a mulligan on an adaptation that actually wasn’t any good the first time around, when Danny Cannon so execrably brought Judge Dredd to the screen with 1995′s Sylvester Stallone-starring calamity.
Cannon’s ill-thought out effort amped up the camp and drained the grit out of the edgy British comic book, removing Dredd’s helmet for 80% of the film much to the ire of fans, and branching off on a borderline nonsensical plot about clones and the inter-structural politics of the Grand Hall of Justice. Thankfully, this grimmer, grittier take follows a back-to-basics approach, hewing close to the humourously violent cynicism of the source material, while grinding characters and set-pieces around the axis of a minimalist plot that emphasises the visceral thrill over intellectual nuance.
Taking place in a nightmarish future where the world is an irradiated wasteland, the citizens of Mega City One – a desolate expanse situated on America’s East Coast - are forced to inhabit gigantic high-rise buildings, while the authorities are unable to cope with the tide of violent crime hitting the streets. The prevailing law rests in the hands of Judges, imbued with the power of not only judge, but jury and finally, executioner. The most feared of them is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), who is forced to take a telepathic rookie, Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) under his wing on the very day they are assigned to assault a 200-story high-rise in search of drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Upon discovering their presence, she locks the building down, ordering the block’s countless criminals to make short work of them.
Dredd is a solid example of style-over-substance done right; the most striking aspect is unquestionably its visual accomplishment, for this is a splendid looking film, directed by Pete Travis with a grimy, Grindhouse-esque aesthetic. Ably conveying the effects of the film’s fictional drug Slow-Mo with hyper-saturated slow-motion, Travis creates a sumptuously dreamlike reflection of the city’s rampant drug use, smartly juxtaposed with the dimly-lit, drab hallways of the apartment block itself; simply, it’s not hard to understand why so many have turned to this mind-altering substance.
Plot absolutely takes a backseat to the hyper-stylised action here, and though many will take umbrage with its trapped-inside-a-tower-block premise being apparently lifted from The Raid, the film was actually in production several months prior to the electrifying Indonesian actioner. What the film lacks in depth and character development it somewhat compensates for with a dizzying, unrelenting barrage of hardcore, beautifully realised violence, that will appeal to the comic’s fans and particularly to those who felt burned by the anodyne Stallone version. While on the surface this violence merely satisfies a primal urge, it actually has a point; the summary executions are indicative of a state in disrepair, where blood only begets more blood, and the Judge’s abruptly ultimate slayings suggest a civilisation so far gone that they don’t know which way is up. Though the film might be said to glorify these actions through slow-motion shots of bullets tearing through bodies, we are never asked to fully approve of Dredd’s cold approach; our POV is always with Thirlby’s Cassandra, the tale’s heart and soul, bringing an unexpected warmth and humanity to a story that could so easily be without either.
Of course, all this would be for little were the names behind the helmets poorly cast. However, Karl Urban – who, yes, spends 100% of the film behind the helmet – is a fine upgrade from Stallone, delivering a more restrained, disciplined and agreeably stoic performance that is darkly comic, and appropriately one-dimensional. The real star of the show, however, is Thirlby, a peculiar casting choice but one that has proven wise; her youthful naivete is immaculately-played, and the conviction of her performance helps us buy into what is easily the most absurd aspect of the story – that she has the power to read minds. In a supporting role, Lena Headey also lives up to the physical demands of her villainous drug-peddler, even if Ma-Ma does feel underdeveloped – as is a common complaint with this film.
It’s fast-paced, efficient, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking; more than a little messy, but gorgeous to look at, and something the action and comic crowds will find it easy to get behind. It’s crafted with a clear love for the source material, even if it skimps on any dramatic or thematic nuance whatsoever. Still, this is a resurrecting jolt of life to a property that will hopefully find firmer ground with a sequel should it ignite the box office. Dredd is a rare reboot both necessary and successful, doing what Stallone’s stolid effort couldn’t with double the budget – excite, entertain, and stay crucially true to John Wagner’s unwaveringly dark vision. Just don’t expect much from the 3D.
Dredd is in cinemas Friday.
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