Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jim's Movie Reviews: Dredd 3D

Dredd 3D is the second major motion picture concerning the exploits of Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban), a fictional law enforcement officer in the post-apocalyptic metropolis Mega-City One. The character and his world were created by John Wagner and first rendered by Carlos Ezquerra in sequence art for the UK scifi anthology magazine 2000 AD, and published under various titles for the better part of the last 35 years or so.  Dredd is as old as Star Wars, even if he doesn't enjoy the same level of attention.

Written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame), this film pairs Dredd with rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on an investigation into a run-of-the-mill triple homicide in a massive residential skyscraper that turns into all out war as the plot unfolds.  It seems that this structure is home to the undisputed queen of the city's drug cartels (Ma-Ma, played by Lena Headey) and once she puts the building on lock-down, no one's getting in or out until justice is served or the Judges are dead. Fortunately for our heroes, Judges in Mega-City One are equipped with plenty of justice (read: 'bullets') and the authority to try, convict, and sentence miscreants on the spot, up to and including the death penalty.

What follows could be described as a blood-bath, but there are also plenty of bone fragments, shards of glass, teeth, freshly skinned corpses, and various displaced anatomy flying around the screen for most of the film.  Each death is exquisitely rendered in stunning detail, with 3D used to great effect, resulting in a level of violence that makes your average Rambo tussle look like a Saturday afternoon spa treatment.

Through it all, Dredd remains the stoic, unyielding figure we are introduced to at the beginning of the film, with his only character arc being the traversal from floor to floor, Die Hard style, in the great high-rise of death he finds himself in.  What little character growth there is is managed by Cassandra, who lays aside her initial squeamishness to become capable of doing what's necessary to survive, that is, kill a whole bunch of people in varied and spectacular fashion.

I feel I've been flippant enough about the characters and the violence in this film that I should take a moment to say the following:  As a screenplay, this piece does only what's necessary to advance the rather pedestrian and cliched plot from beginning to end.  As it was filmed, however, it succeeds on several aesthetics that not only make it a wonderful film to watch, but one of the most skillfully rendered action movies in recent memory.  The photography in evidence is astoundingly good, and no surer hand with set pieces and backdrop have I seen in a movie of its ilk since Blade Runner.  Yes, I went there:  Mega-City One is so stunningly realized, it invites comparison to some of the best works in the genre.  Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (yeah, the one with the Oscar) puts his best foot forward here.  With flyover shots taken from about thirty thousand feet, the city is established from horizon to endless horizon in orderly rows and columns, where gargantuan project buildings housing seventy thousand people a piece stand as ominous sentinels peppering the land.  The oppression and hopelessness of the citizens is palpable from the opening shot.  And let's not stop there:  The vision of its highways and byways at ground level is richly realized as well, with nary a surface unmarked by dust, blood, crumbling stone, offal or graffiti, and all is awash in punishing sunlight glare.  Interiors are dark, suitably cramped, and packed to the gills with gritty detail.  Never once in the film are you fully removed from the presence of decay, not even during the dream-like sequences depicting the drug-induced ecstasy of some of the city's more fortunate junkies. There are no green trees, no fountains, no garden parks, no glimpse of nature to relieve you from the visage of a world that is simply used up.

The viewer never has to wonder, then, about the role of the addictive substance peddled by the antagonists' goon squad.  Called slo-mo, the drug serves the user by slowing the apparent passage of time to 1/100th that of normal speed, the effect being to render beautiful, for a time, the simplest gesture or happenstance.  The camera uses this to breathtaking effect in several sequences during the film, including some of the more prominent death scenes.  Filmed in ultra-high speed, the sweat, blood, and splintered bone performs a ballet in mid-air, rendered in a crisp 3D effect that, to my knowledge, has never been demonstrated so effectively in this media.  Unless you are one of those people who absolutely detests 3D film-making to the point of nausea, you'll want to see this one with the glasses on.

The film is edited well, ramping into a smooth action pacing early on, and firing on all cylinders to the end.  The actors do a fine standout soliloquies or emotional revelations, but Mr. Urban's Dredd is confidently delivered and maintains the necessary air of menace and finality necessary for the character.  Thirlby's Cassandra convincingly moves from timid to decisive as the situation comes to a rolling boil.  Headey is a sufficiently damaged, ferocious, and utterly remorseless Ma-Ma.  The score is wonderfully integrated and sets an eerie tone in the slo-mo sequences, changing to an arrhythmic artificial heartbeat for much of the fast action.

All in all, where the film fails to deliver a complex story or engaging character arc, it succeeds so fluently in its aesthetic that it's hard to dismiss.  I recommend it to fans of the genre, and to fans of the character wholeheartedly, but the level of violence and lack of literary merit may be valid reasons to stay away for others.  8 out of 10.

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