Failure to Comply

I can’t tell if Dredd is a satire on hyper-violent action movies, or just an unusually smart and well-made hyper-violent action movie. And I’m not entirely sure that the distinction even matters.

My familiarity with Judge Dredd is limited to a wikipedia article, occasional mentions from British comic book fans over the years, and a three-or-four page story that I read back in college but didn’t really see the point of it. I’d seen the comic frequently described as a satire of fascism taken to its extreme, 70s American vengeance movies like Dirty Harry, and America in general. And I’d seen the movie ‐ now called just Dredd to avoid any lingering unpleasant memories of the Sylvester Stallone abomination — described as being gory and hyper-violent.

From hearing that, I’d imagined it to be over-the-top, Paul Verhoeven-style satire like Starship Troopers or Robocop. It’s absolutely not. Instead, it’s a well-made and intelligent — and often surprisingly pretty — action movie that never demands the audience draw any obvious conclusions. I think that it’s only by taking all of the components of a brain-dead 90s future cop movie, and then putting them together in a way that actually works and doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, that Dredd invites interpretation.

And I do mean all of the components of a brain-dead action movie. There’s a voice-over at the beginning and end. A straightforward get-to-the-bad-guy-and-kill-them plot that has just enough twists to have more than 45 minutes running time. Scenes of children staring wide-eyed in the face of violence. A still-optimistic rookie facing a crisis of conscience. A character who sums up the state of the world, and a betrayal that establishes Dredd’s character in contrast. And of course, plenty of opportunities for Dredd to deliver the Well-Timed Action Movie One-Liner.

But it doesn’t feel like going through a well-worn template, and it doesn’t feel like a winking, self-conscious subversion, either. It feels more like a group of smart people started with something familiar, took it apart to study how everything worked, and then put it back together in a way that actually made sense.

As evidence that it’s smart enough for interpretation:

Everybody’s Ugly. The stars of the movie are Karl Urban, Lena Headey, and Olivia Thirlby. All three of them are very good-looking, but only Thirlby is allowed to show it. Headey spends the entire movie covered in scars and/or blood, with fake bad teeth and the blank stare of a drug addict. Urban’s face is never shown; he carries the entire performance with his voice and his frown. And it all works really, surprisingly well. They’re not just filling standard roles in an action movie and putting their names on slots in a movie poster; they’re delivering actual performances.

Judicious Use of One-Liners. When Judge Dredd delivers a line like “I am the law,” there’s no hint of a wink at the audience, or of a cue to stand up and cheer. It’s there simply to establish Dredd’s character: he’s unique, he’s incorruptible, and there’s no trace of irony there. In fact, one of the best moments in the movie doesn’t even use a one-liner…

Somebody’s Read Chekhov. (Major Spoiler!): In one scene, one of the judges explains how she’s going to take down rookie judge Anderson. The showdown is set in our minds as a couple of other scenes play out. We know more than the characters do; she’s walking into a trap, and how is she going to get out of it? When the characters finally meet, Anderson has a psychic flash, guns down the rogue judge, and walks out without a word. I sat through two and a half hours of Inception without seeing that kind of restraint.

The Beauty of Slo-Mo. In addition to being generally smart, Dredd 3D may be the first action-movie release that actually benefits from the 3D treatment. When a character’s under the influence of the drug Slo-Mo, which slows the taker’s perception of time to 1% of normal, all of the colors shift, and even mundane things like droplets of water start to sparkle like diamonds. For a moment, it makes the dismal gray world of the characters seem less ugly. At the end of the movie, as we watch Ma-Ma’s long descent, we see light sparkle off the shards of glass, a cloud of smoke frozen in time, and her pose go from one of falling to graceful, content flying. Even the impact is stretched out and filled with color, in a way that’s fascinating if not outright beautiful.

There’s little sense of a villain’s comeuppance; it’s a few moments that, along with the dialogue of one of the other villains earlier, finally establish her character. Suddenly, she seems less like a stock ruthless villain, and more like a person who’d lived her life in the “meat grinder” of the post-apocalyptic world, and her dependence on the drug was an attempt to see beauty in a world that had none left.

Two Sides of the Same Coin. The other scene that uses the Slo-Mo effect as something more than simply establishing the movie’s McGuffin, is when Dredd and Anderson first raid the apartment on one of the lower floors, where the drug is being dealt. We see the raid through the eyes of someone under the influence of the drug, and it’s all more fascinating than horrifying — we see flesh rippling from impact, bursts of blood as bullets slice through bodies and faces, but it’s all too hypnotizing and almost graceful for it to register as extreme violence. You get the sense that this is not just the junkie’s perspective, but Dredd’s: administering justice is his own way of dealing with the bleakness and squalor that everyone is mired in.

And later, again during Ma-ma’s fall, we see the aftermath of Dredd’s attack on the theater, filmed in a similar way to the aftermath of her own attack on the floor where the judges were hiding. There’s fire and debris, and the ground is littered with corpses and bloodied, still-breathing people caught in the crossfire. They were both single-minded in their objective and completely callous to all the destruction they’d caused. The question is there without making it explicit: when life becomes this worthless, does it really matter whether you’re killing people in the name of self-promotion or in the name of justice?

No One Is Too Old For This Shit. And none of that even mentions how cleverly the movie handles Anderson’s psychic abilities throughout — in particular her “mind games” with the drug dealer — or sets up every opportunity to make her a cliche, but then insists on treating her like a real person. She’s got to be the rookie, the fish out of water, the fresh-faced optimist, the green recruit who Knows Her Stuff but Doesn’t Know What It’s Like In The Real World, the homesick orphan, and the kick-ass emancipated woman; and yet survives the whole process feeling just like a well-rounded character.

So ultimately, it just seems like Dredd leaves the judging to the characters, and it presents an action movie that’s smart enough to let the audience choose their own interpretation. Or no interpretation at all. And that’s probably for the best. What might’ve been biting satire in 1977 would just come across as dated and obvious today. Do we really need to have filmmakers tell us “Fascism is bad?” Look at the Death Race remake for a perfect example of how a clumsy attempt to say This Means Something Significant To Our Society can end up feeling even stupider than saying nothing at all.