I lament what seems to be the passing of the 18 rated blockbuster movie. Back in the nineteen eighties and the nineteen nineties, rental video seemed awash with uncompromising sex and violence. It helped sell low-budget B-movies. Invariably, ten or twenty minutes after pressing “play” on the video recorder, the horror film that promised so much, delivered so little. It was just violence. And whilst that’s okay for a while, the thrill of watching such things soon fades if the story isn’t up to much.
But luckily, an uncompromising vision to see an entry and exit wound for every bullet was prevalent in bigger budget movies. The plots, for some, might not have improved over their low-budget stablemates. But at least you could rely on a director with a keen eye for the exciting action scene. And with a charismatic star at the centre, dispensing justice, one neck snap at a time, with quips polished until they gleamed, it proved hard to wipe the grin from your face as the credits rolled.
Over time, the bloody, violent blockbuster has fallen victim to the bottom line. A lower rating gets more people in the cinema. But the cost is an untruthful, bloodless film that might not linger for long in the memory (see The Hunger Games for an example of this).
Thank Drokk (as they say in Mega-City One) for Dredd 3D then. It’s second time round for the British comic hero. You may remember him from the 1995 Sylvester Stallone version where, against tradition, he did the unthinkable and removed his helmet early in the film, and then never put it back on. Stallone also mangled Dredd’s catchphrase, “I am the law!”. When those words were spat from his lop-sided mouth, he bizarrely turned into a Frenchman. “I yam de luurrr!” didn’t have the same ring to it. But it’s okay, he had a new catchphrase: “I knew you’d say that!” Hilarious!
As if that wasn’t bad enough, full-time crime against cinema, Rob Schneider, was an entirely unnecessary comedy sidekick. But not everything was rubbish. Diane Lane made for a good Judge Hershey. Mega-City One didn’t look too shabby, and a brief appearance by the Angel Gang entertained. Mean Machine Angel was particularly well realised.
It just never felt like a Judge Dredd movie. Stallone the megastar eclipsed Dredd the comic icon. It might as well have been called Judge Stallone.
So what of Karl Urban? Urban’s one of those guys who’s not a massive star, but you know his face. He’s turned up in all sorts. You know he’s going knock out an honest, dependable performance. And whilst that might not sound like the most inspiring description of an actor, it means he’s not going to let his own real life character get in the way of the character he’s playing. Dredd is larger than life, and Karl Urban seems to understand this.
Dredd, on the surface, is one-dimensional. He’s a cop whose word is law, whose life is law. You’re either guilty or not guilty. It would be easy for an actor to play him this way. Instead, Urban plays him relatively straight, never going over the top, and managing to capture Dredd’s dry wit. Dredd the comic character was influenced by Dirty Harry, so Urban brings a touch of Clint Eastwoodto the role, and it works perfectly. He’s certainly a vast improvement over Stallone. Near the end, during a brief exchange with a superior, you see a side to Dredd where he seems to step slightly outside of the rules, suggesting he’s willing to bend if he thinks it’s the smart decision.
The story itself is a simple one. Judge Dredd and a rookie, Judge Anderson, have been called to a disturbance at the Peach Trees Block. In the comic, blocks are basically huge skyscrapers with vast populations. In some cases, an inhabitant of a block need never leave it. Dredd and Anderson end up trapped by the block’s defences, at the mercy of female gang lord known as Ma-Ma, and her army of bad guys. It turns out that Ma-Ma is the head of a drug dealing operation which produces Slo-Mo, a drug which reduces the users perception of time to 1% of its normal speed.
I thought the Slo-Mo drug was a clever way to work around what has become something of a cliche in big Hollywood movies, the slow motion tricks favoured by the likes of Paul WS Anderson, among others. The Slo-Mo drug makes for some incredibly stylish violence, especially when seen in what is the best use of 3D for some time. Blood sprays in glistening arcs from bullet wounded cheeks. Window panes smash into a thousand glittering shards. And even bath time is an event, when Ma-Ma lifts her hand from the bath water to admire the crystal droplets, spraying elegantly from her fingertips.
All of these slo-mo events are infused with a searing colour palette of oranges, yellows and reds. It looks spectacular, and stays just the right side of gratuitous.
Elsewhere, the film has a grimy look to it. The general tone is markedly different to what I was expecting having read a fair number of the comics. References to the whackier stuff of Mega-City One are there in the background, if you look hard enough. But this is a more realistic vision. Some purists might argue that it strays too far from the cheese fever nightmare of Dredd’s world. Noticeably, classic swear words from the comic like “Drokk!” are replaced with their real world counterparts.
This is a Dredd movie that’s, successfully, feeling its way, and trying to distance itself from the Stallone debacle of 1995.
Of course, you’ve probably heard of another film where cops have to fight their way up a city block to get to the bad guy at the top. Yep, I’m talking about The Raid. I feel Dredd 3D has been unfairly compared to that film. In the comics, Dredd is often called to a block where its inhabitants have become embroiled in all out war. The film is simply drawing material direct from the source. So I think anyone who is put off watching Dredd 3D because of some notion that it’s “ripped off The Raid” is missing out on a real action treat.
And anyway, Dredd 3D had actually finished shooting at the tail end of 2010. The Raid didn’t start filming until 2011. But The Raid hit cinemas first. I think this unfortunate timing must surely account for at least some of Dredd 3D’s lacklustre box office performance.
It seems Dredd’s biggest challenge might not be facing off against Judge Death — a Judge from another dimension where life itself is a crime — in the third film of a planned trilogy, but even getting a sequel at all. Maybe the day of the violent blockbuster truly is dead. Maybe direct to video garbage is all we can hope for. Or maybe — fingers and toes crossed — decent DVD and Blu-Ray sales will be enough to green light the Dredd sequels I’d love to see.