TIFF Review: 'Dredd 3D'
Yesterday's futurecop gets a second shot on the big screen
There is, to be sure, nothing new under the sun in "Dredd 3D," director Pete Travis' take on the British comic-book futuristic supercop, and a film chosen to open TIFF's Midnight Madness selection; at the same time, the film's near-perfect understanding of the tone of both the source material and itself makes it a high-octane heavy-gloss ugly-pretty adrenaline rush far easier to enjoy than you'd think. Created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Azquerra, "Judge Dredd" was a feature in the British comic magazine 2000 AD starting in 1977, where he functioned as a parody of his own genre, a cop who could not only arrest but try and execute, working the mean streets and meaner skyscrapers of Mega City One, the city that stretches from what used to be Boston to what used to be Washington, surrounded by thick walls and tracts of irradiated dust, home to 800 million people.
Dredd was brought to the screen before in 1995, with Sylvester Stallone in the leading role; that film infuriated Dredd fans, and was roundly ignored by everyone else. With a script by Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "The Beach,") "Dredd 3D" is a vast improvement, in no small part because Garland and director Travis get that Dredd is supposed to appeal to our worst instincts; Dredd doesn't have swagger, but, rather, the steely motions of a monster and the robotic slow gaze of a bird of prey. In the comics, Dredd never took his helmet off (a running joke that worked); here, Karl Urban ("Star Trek," "Red") gets to put on a heavy helmet with mirrors over its eyes and still connect, thanks in no small part to his expressive deadpan -- excuse me, Dredd-pan -- that conveys both badassery and sardonicism.
The film begins as Dredd's assigned a new trainee/rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a marginal cadet who nonetheless has amazing psychic abilities; in the field, she could be an asset. If she doesn't get killed. Before a firefight, Dredd asks why she didn't bring her helmet. "A helmet would interfere with my psychic abilities, sir." His response is pragmatic and dryly hilarious. The two are assigned to look into a disturbance in a 200-floor apartment building called Peach Trees; Peach Tress has a 96% unemployment rate, and is controlled completely by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a hooker-turned-gang leader who controls the manufacture and sale of the new drug Slo-Mo. The arrival of judges at Peach Trees is bad; they have to be locked in. Everybody in the building is told that killing the judges will bring them glory and wealth. First step, though, isn't going to be easy.
Genre-watchers have noted similarities to both "Dredd 3D" and "The Raid," but both went into production roughly concurrently, and really, a setting is a setting. (And, bluntly, economics is economics -- both films bottle up the action to increase effect while cutting down costs.) What "Dredd 3D" really offers, though, is pedal-down action-trash filmmaking with hidden intelligence and widely-broadcast shamelessness. (The drug slo-mo does what you think it might; we see many things as its users do, including a bubble bath splashed through smoky air -- cooool -- and a person getting shot in the head -- cooooooler.) The violence in "Dredd 3D" is not sincere enough to be ugly -- think of the liquefied bad guy in "RoboCop" for a precedent -- but it is grisly enough to make an impression on even the most jaded genre fan.
Headey and her staff (including Wood Harris of "The Wire" and Domnhall Gleason) are written, and written well, as credible threats with lives and wants of their own. The relationship between Dredd and Anderson is, essentially, "Training Day" with no ambiguity and more technology. The 3D makes the film gorgeous even when it's appalling, and I couldn't help but laugh at a moment of dedicated excess when the fountain-like blood spray from a wound shot off the screen and even went past the edges of the black bars matting the image to float in crimson space; that's dedication. "Dredd 3D" isn't revelatory, nor does it redefine any of the genres it splashes among as it goes its merry, bloody way, but as goofy-gory self-satire high-tech low-morality future-cop epics go, it's charmingly diabolical.