Monday, January 21, 2013

DVD of the Week: Dredd

Anticipation is a dangerous thing. It sets you up for dissappointment half the time, when whatever you're watching or reading doesn't live up to that expectation. The Phantom Menace is a bad film, but to hear some people talk it's a hate-crime against their collective childhoods, over and above any merits it may not have. That is anticipation, turned to ashes. On the other hand, it can make you overlook the flaws in something, see a film you want to see, not that a film that is. This is the logic that makes The Return of the King the 9th best film ever made, according to IMDb's Top 250, and really? No, I don't think so. Which brings us to Dredd, which may be one of the biggest Fan Films ever made, and a hotly anticipated one at that. 

We missed Dredd at the cinema due to running out of babysitter credits, and then had to live through a parade of my friends seeing it, and mostly praising it to the rafters. Certainly fans of the character, still bearing the scars of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone version, were very happy indeed, and it's broadly positive critical reception only added to the feeling I was missing out. And then of course it opened in the US and fell flat on it's face - ironically given the fate of several characters! - and suddenly there is a romance around Dredd, that finally faithful rendition of an iconic character, now destined to be the only one of it's kind. 

So naturally I bought it the day it came out on Blu-Ray. 

Dredd has a lot to commend it, both as a film, and as an adaptation. The second point is the easiest to address; this is the characters from the comics, doing a storyline you can imagine being in the comics. It's extraordinarily respectful of the source material and littered with nods and in-jokes throughout, drawing on the world when it needs to without ever falling into too much needless exposition. By keeping its focus tight on the one Block, it introduces the world of Mega-City One with an economy that I think other adaptations could learn from - and it's not just me, whose read 2000AD a lot, but also Z, who hasn't, and didn't need anything explaining. 

The film itself is harder to pick apart, but a couple of things leap out straight away. Karl Urban is great as Dredd, taciturn, acting solely with his voice and his chin, he's a rock-solid, unflinching straight-man throughout the film. But it's Olivia Thirby's Anderson that shone out for me. When you look at it a certain way, Anderson's arc through the film is about stepping up and being a better Facist Futurecop, and for all the film argues that may be necessary, she's still learning to summarily execute people. Despite that, she's the films human centre, and one of the strongest female characters I've seen on screen for a while, without ever being undercut. 

Take the threat of Rape. It's often used in films to make strong female characters look vulnerable so they can be rescued by a (usually male) hero. More reprehensibly  (and more often in older films), it's used a bit of cheap titillation as the filmmaker stick in some rape-y subtext between the villain and the heros love interest. Anderson is flat-out threatened with rape several times in the course of Dredd and it's her reaction to it that makes her a strong character. She's never intimidated, she's never not in control. Sure, she gets captured, but she busts herself out, saves the (male) hero, and generally kicks a lot of ass without ever having that agency removed from her. A Self-Rescuing Princess, indeed. 

Away from the characters I do think the film has a couple of issues. The plot is pretty basic, but in many ways that's a virtue; keeping a focus on action and movement and stopping it getting bogged down in exposition. There's a clear intent for this to be an introductory movie to this world without being an origin story, something I applaud, frankly, because origin stories for comic adaptations are doing my head in. Some of it's pacing does flag in places though, the introduction of the rogue judges mid-way through feels a little out of left-field (although they're well used), and the whole thing ends slightly abruptly. The "made for 3D" shots are little annoying apart from the "slo-mo" sequences that look really cool and trippy. 

Finally, I think the tone may catch some people off-guard. We haven't seen many blood-spattered action movies that use explosive death as a punch-line since the 1980s, and the deadpan delivery feels like a throwback to an earlier age. Modern action movies aim for the (US) PG-13 rating, so not a lot of blood, not a lot of swearing, faceless, often robotic antagonists that can be blown up by heroes whose internal conflicts are played out in scenes about whether they're good fathers, or husbands, or somesuch. But Dredd has none of this - He Is The Law - and whilst it makes it a distinctive film it's also landed it with a much higher certificate that may (unfairly) put people off. 

So was Dredd everything I wanted it to be? Well, almost. I missed the move overly tongue-in-cheek elements the comic often throws in, I missed a sense of the wider world that would maybe have made the film stand out even further from the usual dystopian grunge-futures. I understand why they aren't there, but I missed them anyway. But it gets so much right, and I think stands apart as a movie from a lot of multiplex fodder, and I think it deserved a better run than it had. I hope that it's future is that of a cult-classic; it has many of the right elements, but I fear we'll never get to see the wider world that it is introducing us to. And that's a Drokking Shame.