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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dredd 3D

I know, I know, things have been very slow lately. The good news is that I should soon have a roundup of the rest of September's films but, for now, my take on this year's most surprising comic book film.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

In the future, the only thing that stands between Mega City One, a decaying, ultra-violent metropolis, and total chaos are the Judges – a select group of law enforcement agents who are given the power to act as judge, jury and executioner. The ruthless, uncompromising Judge Dredd is the city's most feared and revered Judge, but when Dredd and Judge Anderson, a rookie judge he is in the process of field testing, go after a particularly malicious drug dealer/ crime boss, the hunters soon become the pray as they finds themselves trapped in a locked-down city block with a price on their heads and scores of cut-throat criminals on their tails.

What we thought

In a year when you have The Avengers, Batman and Spider-man dominating this year's box office, it would be all to easy to overlook this far smaller, far more unassuming comic book movie. Judge Dredd is about as big as British comic book characters go, but even then, we're hardly talking Batman or Spider-man levels of international recognition here. Worse, those who are familiar with Dredd already have to find some way to get past the awful 1990s Stallone adaptation that not only had Dredd committing the cardinal sin of removing his helmet, but made use of the terminally unfunny Rob Schneider as “comic” relief. Plus, to be brutally honest, the trailer did nothing to suggest that Dredd 3D, with its over-use of slow motion and macho violence, would be that much of an improvement on its daft predecessor.

It's probably damning the film with faint praise then, to say that Dredd 3D is a very pleasant surprise, but it really is precisely that. Rather than taking on the DC and Marvel blockbusters head-on, Dredd comes in as a grimy and gritty alternative to the epic optimism that characterizes all, or at least the best, superhero films. It's a low-budget South African/ British co-production that was largely shot in Cape Town and Johannesburg (future America is apparently overrun by minibus taxis) with only three moderately successful stars at the centre of it.

The best thing about Dredd s just how stripped-down and, fittingly, uncompromising it is. There really isn't a whole lot of plot beyond what was already described in the above synopsis, but rather than being to the film's detriment, its simplicity allows for a taught, claustrophobic and intense action film that does everything that it set out to do in just over an hour and a half.

It probably helps that Dredd himself is played as less a character and more as an unstoppable force of nature – the true heart of the film is Olivia Thirby's psychic and sympathetic Judge Anderson – but Dredd 3D fits so much into its running time that it works both as an introduction to Mega City One and its Judges and as a perfectly satisfying action thriller with enough time devoted to its characters to make you care about what's going on on screen. How many scifi/ fantasy action films currently on circuit can you say that about?

For someone who hasn't been directing feature films for very long, Pete Travis directs with plenty of style and a good eye for effective and rather gory action set pieces. Considering that no one would ever believe that Dredd wouldn't come out of the film kicking and snarling and that the nature of the plot means that the action could so easily get very repetitive very fast, Travis's ability to keep things suspenseful and intense throughout is nothing to be sneered at. Even the potentially annoying slo-mo of the trailer is quickly revealed to have an actual purpose as much of the plot revolves around a drug that causes its users to experience the world at 1/100th their normal speed.

Of course, he was working with one of the industry's better scriptwriters, Alex Garland who before adapting Kazuo Ishiguro's very novelistic Never Let Me Go into a very fine screenplay, cut his teeth working with the great Danny Boyle. Here he has the challenge of making the fundamentally fascistic Judge Dredd into a sympathetic anti-hero but, by emphasising just how far gone Mega City One's is, he allows the audience to gain at least some appreciation for the Judges and the world in which they operate. By having on hand so adept a screenwriter as Alex Garland, Dredd is able to make the best of its b-movie trappings without ever falling prey to them.

The film already has excellent pedigree behind the cameras, but the talent on screen are no less impressive. Thirby has finally been given a role worthy of her talents after being the best thing in what is otherwise a pretty awful string of films. Lena Headey has proven to be very, very good at playing bad and, eve if her character here has none of the complexity of the one she plays on Game of Thrones, she more than makes up for it by cranking the bonkers, malicious nastiness all the way up to eleven.

And then, of course, there is Karl Urban who is simply sensational as the title character. Considering that he has to do all his acting with the bottom third of his face, he is a memorable and magnetic screen presence who plays Dredd with the required mixture of dark, utterly deadpan humour and unshakable stoicism. Forget the frankly campy Stallone, this is Dredd as he was always meant to be.

It's not the smartest, the meatiest or the deepest film you will see this year, but Dredd 3D (incidentally, the 3D is OK at best) is the one movie to watch if you want to see just how satisfying an experience shameless b-movies can be when they have the right people and the right intentions involved.

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