Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
September 2012

Dredd

More is less

'Dredd' delivers action, and lots of it, and keeps on doing it for 95 long, dull minutes

Dredd
Lionsgate
Director: Pete Travis
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on characters created by Carlos Ezquerra and John Wagner
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Rakie Ayola, Domnhall Gleeson and Warrick Grier
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Opened September 21, 2012
(out of four)

It's borderline insulting the way action movies can be held to such a low standard, the way they casually get away with (or are even specifically celebrated for) offering nothing but the base requirements for the genre. The thinking seems to be this: Is there action in it? Yes. Is there a lot of it? Yes. Is there anything else in it? No. Perfect!

So a movie like Dredd gets praised largely on the grounds that it offers non-stop action and carnage for fans of non-stop action and carnage. And nothing else. Since when did we start celebrating movies simply for fulfilling [low] expectations? That's like praising a C-minus student for bringing home a report card with straight C-minuses. Congratulations, you're exactly what I thought you were - mediocre!

What they say about Dredd is true - it is fully committed to its particular brand of straight-faced violence (if, at the same time, as fully uncommitted to its dystopian vision, but more on that later) and single-minded in its delivery of it. That there is so little imagination to most of it is, apparently, acceptable. Those looking for exactly this kind of experience and nothing more will find exactly the experience they were looking for, and nothing more. It is, in other words, porn. ("So, how was the porno?" / "Well, there was a lot of nudity." / "Wow, sounds like an excellent film!" And scene.)

The thing is, I like action movies. Another thing I like is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But if I went to a restaurant - yes, even if it was hilariously named "PB & J's" - and they provided me with literally nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I would leave the establishment unfulfilled and disappointed.

("Would you like to try our desserts, sir? Today's offering is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. Yes that's right, the same one you had for your appetizer and the same one you had for your main course and the same one you had mixed up in the blender for your beverage. ... Our peanut butter options are Peter Pan and Jif. We do not offer Skippy at this time. ... No, sir, I'm afraid you canNOT substitute jelly for strawberry jam. And don't even think about asking for preserves.")

For me, that's what Dredd - and its like-minded predecessors - is like. It's along the same lines as Total Recall in its humorless, one-note approach. I'm reminded of the joke about the Academy Awards - that you should just replace the word "best" with "most." The best actor won't win, but the person who did the most (as in most noticeable) acting will. Same logic here. Movies like Dredd may have the most action, but that doesn't necessarily make it the best action - or even particularly good action. Too often the distinction is lost.

The worst thing is, Dredd doesn't really even take advantage of its capacity for excess. It's merely workmanlike in the presentation of its violence. But take something like Shoot 'Em Up or Dead Alive or Kill Bill: Vol. 1, or the films of Takashi Miike, John Woo or Paul Verhoeven - those are movies that revel in their excess, and turn it into a kind of poetry of blood and mayhem.

There's no such attempt here. Sure, there are a few cool ideas here and there, but they aren't usually fleshed out enough to leave any impact.

We are presented with a depressed future in which 800 million people are squeezed into a single city that basically spans the distance of the Northeastern U.S. I don't recall if it's ever made clear whether there's a real power structure in place. In any case, the city is riddled with crime, the only discernible semblance of civilization or order being the Hall of Justice, which sends out judges to patrol the streets - investigation, incarceration, litigation, sentencing and even execution, all rolled into one job.

The city is lined with strip after strip of high-rise slums, typically controlled by gangs. The most powerful of the slum lords is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute with a sadistic violent streak and a popular new product - the drug "Slo-Mo," which gives users the feeling that time is passing at 1 percent of its normal speed. She likes to skin traitors alive and heave them to the ground from 200 stories up, just to make a point.

Enter Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a no-nonsense type out on a homicide investigation at the Peach Trees housing block - which just so happens to be Ma-Ma's turf. Along for the ride is an unproven rookie judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), whose psychic abilities have singlehandedly kept her afloat at the Hall of Justice. This is her first, and perhaps last, official training mission.

The movie doesn't do a whole lot with any of the things it brings up - which came as a surprise to me considering the script is from Alex Garland, whose previous writing credits (Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, 28 Days Later...) I've been a fan of. In Dredd, there's not much room for any exploration - not into Dredd as a character (which, to be fair, is just as well, since I imagine he works better as a powerful figure/symbol than as a person), nor Anderson or Ma-Ma, nor (most crucially) the dystopian landscape itself, which is nothing more than cheap set dressing. (And speaking of cheap, the barrage of bright red CGI blood removes any sense of grittiness the film was presumably going for.)

Judge Dredd's objectives are straightforward and, in a sense, pure. Dredd, the movie, reflects that attitude, I suppose; but there's little to really sink your teeth into when a film is so relentless in executing its dull ideas. This is another example of a movie competently doing only the bare minimum of what is required. The competence I appreciate, but that alone is not nearly enough.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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