Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Not Quite Dredd-ful

Maybe I'm a little late to the party on this one but it really is becoming more and more apparent to me what an enormous influence Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy is having on current comic book adaptations.

Like its 1995 counterpart starring Sylvester Stallone, last year's Dredd is based on a 1970's British comic book series (unread by me) about a dystopian future society where the "cops" are in fact judges with the power to try, convict and execute criminals on the spot (this sounds like a premise with potential but unfortunately neither film really does much with it). From a technical perspective, there is little to complain about in Dredd. The film has a gritty, grainy look that makes its sprawling polluted metropolis seem like an actual place. The majority of it takes place in a massive residence building which gives the film a suspenseful, claustrophobic atmosphere (sort of like a futuristic Die Hard) and the digital effects are most convincing when used to make the oppressive environment more believable. They are somewhat less convincing when trying to make gun shot wounds seem real. The film also has a number of gorgeously stylized sequences that are almost hypnotic in their visual beauty (the plot centers around a drug called "slow-mo" that makes everything seem slowed down; imagine the cinematic possibilities). Karl Urban, despite having half of his face hidden through the entire film, provides menace and charisma (and can grimace just as good as Stallone can) to a character with very little personality and Lena Headly gives a fantastic, eccentric performance as a truly terrifying and evil villain named Ma-Ma.

What's missing from the whole enterprise, frankly, is just good old-fashioned fun. When compared with the cheesy, colorful big screen comic incarnations of the late 80's-90's (Batman, The Shadow, The Phantom, Darkman, etc), I am starting to be of the opinion that contemporary comic book movies just take themselves way too damn seriously. At a certain point in the story I found myself thinking, "This movie is holding my attention, but I am not really enjoying it." For all of its misfires, the '95 film at least realized the absurdities of its central conceit and made no bones about it. I saw the original in the theater with my father and a mutual friend and while none of us would have praised Judge Dredd as being a fine film by any means, we all enjoyed it and laughed heartily as we talked about it afterward. Dredd is so dark, so grim and so humorless that there is virtually nothing in it to laugh at or even really smile about. I think I watched the entire film with a "Dredd-like" unamused expression on my face. Furthermore, its stone-cold soberness throws the sillier aspects into even sharper contrast. In that regard Stallone's rendition might have the upper hand. It was incoherent but it was not inconsistent. This Dredd is both.

Also, the film is EXTREMELY violent, with a body count that must number in the hundreds (most of them innocent civilians). I am not at all squeamish when it comes to onscreen violence, but it is so relentless and unflinching here that it becomes sort of numbing after a while. A couple times I was reminded of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, a comic book movie (though it has no "direct" inspiration) that also had shocking violence but delivered it with such panache that it still managed to be an enjoyable experience. Robocop was both serious and fun, gory but also witty and satirical, cynical but not nihilistic. It demonstrates that it is possible to make a dark, stylish and grown-up "superhero" movie that doesn't collapse under the weight of its own solemnity. I have little hope that its upcoming remake will strike the same delicate balance and will instead probably err more on the side of the bleak ugliness that Dredd wallows in.

Unlike its predecessor, which did not charm the critics, Dredd received generally positive reviews. This did not, however, prevent it from following in the footsteps of its predecessor financially as it flopped at the box office. This is probably unfair since it is not really a bad movie. In many ways it is superior to the '95 version. It's just so joyless, so ugly, so utterly devoid of any modicum of self-awareness that if, for some inconceivable reason, I were to suddenly feel the urge to watch a "Judge Dredd" movie, Stallone's is probably the one I'd reach for.

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