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Feature


America of the future is an irradiated wasteland. On its East Coast lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets. The only force of order is the urban cops called ‘Judges’ who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner. The ultimate Judge, Dredd (Karl Urban), is saddled with a rookie in training with psychic powers named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). The team starts their day on a routine call to Peach Trees, where three men have been skinned and tossed from the top floor of the 200-story slum tower block. Their visit is complicated when a sadistic prostitute turned drug pusher named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) closes down the block and sics her lackies on the two judges in an effort to protect her drug manufacturing empire.

Dredd (2D)
In March of 1977, the world was introduced to writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd in the pages of 2000 AD. Dredd would go on to become one of the UK’s most popular and recognizable homegrown comic book characters, perhaps even the most popular and recognizable. Eventually, Hollywood took notice of Dredd’s popularity and in 1995 a big budget adaptation starring superstar Sylvester Stallone was released. The film, entitled Judge Dredd, was not the hit producers wanted. The less said about the critical reactions, the better. But the character survived the film’s relative failure and endured in popularity, especially in the UK. And, because comic book movies continue to break attendance records the world over, it seemed prime time for a return to Dredd’s grim and gritty roots.

Right off the bat, the lack of narrative content and character development in this latest adaptation is likely a stumbling block for some viewers. It’s easy to dismiss this version of Dredd as an exclusively visual exercise, but I sort of assume that’s the point. Director Pete Travis’ film is, generally speaking, a purely visceral experience that skirts the line between pop entertainment and avant garde experimentation. In part, this is true to the source material, as the character of Judge Dredd isn’t really supposed to develop beyond his current state. In addition, the form over function approach is pretty refreshing for an R-rated, sci-fi action feature. Dredd is the antidote to excessive, PG-13 effects extravaganzas, like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where ridiculous over-plotting turns a simple idea into a nearly three-hour trudge through asinine narrative redundancies and cavernous plot holes. Travis understands the purity of his concept and screenwriter Alex Garland (who also acted as producer) doesn’t waste the audience’s time telling a story they didn’t come to see. I’ve heard many comparisons between Dredd and Gareth Evans’ The Raid, which I am to understand features a similar basic ‘fight to the top of the tower’ narrative concept. Because I haven’t seen Evans’ film yet (I know, how gauche), I’m more apt to compare it to the granddaddy of ‘fight to the top of the tower’ movies – Bruce Lee’s Game of Death. Or at least the parts Lee finished before he died. There’s also a videogame element to the approach. Not so coincidentally, Game of Death was the basis for the granddaddy of all ‘beat ‘em up’ videogames – Kung-Fu Master.

Dredd (2D)
The ‘cut-to-the-chase’ approach doesn’t negate Travis’ artistic ambition, which is ample, and makes for a somewhat unique act in aggressive theatrical violence. There really isn’t a whole lot a filmmaker can do anymore to create a wholly different action experience these days and Dredd isn’t the kind of transcendent experience like The Matrix is, but, like the Wachowskis, Travis builds well upon the achievements of other filmmakers, particularly in his use of surrealistic slow motion and 3D photography. The thematic reasoning for extreme slo-mo, a narcotic literally called ‘SloMo,’ is a bit silly – there is a drug that changes the characters’ concept of time – but Travis’ adherence to the subjective use of slow motion, especially during moments of extreme violence (the drug is administered to prolong the pain for the recipient), makes the silliness of the concept easy to overlook. Dredd sometimes feels like the sibling of Zach Snyder’s comic book adaptations 300 and especially Watchmen. It blends the possibilities of film as moving art and illustration as a static art with vibrant, sometimes cartoonish colours and an exorbitant amount of super slow-motion photography. Yet, unlike Snyder’s films, Dredd has a pretty concrete sense of physicality. Its environments are tangible and its graphic depictions of bodily deconstruction have an almost methodical reality to them. Snyder’s films are certainly hyper-violent, but it’s difficult to compete with the bloody abandon of a film like Dredd. Because of its overall lack of narrative ambition, it’s difficult to call Dredd the better film (I believe Watchmen is ultimately a glourious failure, because it chances the possibility of failure), but its probably the more satisfying experience.  

Like most good sci-fi, Dredd does have an underlying political analogue. Its stark, grim tone and treatment of socio-political phenomenon certainly permeates throughout and weighs down the otherwise cartoonishly violent imagery. The original 2000 AD comics are a bit more ironic and satirical, at least from what I’ve read (which is one thing Cannon’s film got right – he just took it a little too far), but Travis and Garland remain mostly true to the spirit of the original series. However, Dredd doesn’t necessary have a political message to share in terms of the title character’s autocratic, black & white sense of justice. Most vigilante movies have something to say about vigilantism. There is usually either a basic (and usually ignorable) life lesson about the main character being wrong in the long run (the earlier movie adaptation, for example) or the filmmakers are unabashed fans of the idea of bloody retribution and do everything in their power to present their protagonist as righteous. I suppose one could delve into the possible meaning of Dredd’s politics (does Anderson prove Dredd’s assumptions about justice wrong or is he simply seeing her abilities as a tool?), but Travis doesn’t seem particularly interested in assigning right & wrong to the rather fascist law enforcement practices – they’re just a thematic means to a visual end (from what I understand, the 2000 AD comics were a reaction to Thatcher-era conservativism, but were rarely directly referential or pointed in their political message).

Dredd (2D)
It’s also possible that Dredd is lining up events for a more politically-minded sequel (there is a continuing theme of Judges being either corrupt or simply bad at their job), but I’m guessing the film’s less than middling box office take has quashed those possibilities for the near future. This is a bummer. I’d love to see the further adventures of Karl Urban’s terse and rugged version of the character. Besides refusing to break the golden rule of his comic counterpart in never removing his helmet (take that, Sylvester Stallone), he manages to speak in deep, raspy vocal patterns without sounding like a Christian Bale-sized goofball. Olivia Thirlby has a rather thankless role as Dredd’s adorable opposite, but she sells the character pretty well in relatively even tones. Though, speaking of even tones, Lena Headey is fantastic as the Patti Smith-inspired supervillain Ma-Ma, who doesn’t even break a sweat or raise her voice the entire film – even when faced with her own violent mortality. The petite, frail, and pretty (despite her scars) Headey is every ounce the intimidating threat a massive, gun-toting brute like Dredd needs.

Dredd (2D)

Video


Dredd was shot digitally and largely in native 3D, using RED MX and Phantom Flex high-speed cameras, which makes for a pretty gorgeous 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer. Dredd is also the only 3D film I saw in 2012 that almost requires a 3D viewing experience. Travis’ treatment of the format is a mix of astonishing beauty and ridiculous gimmick, which, in my book, is the only way to go. Every ‘celebrated’ digital 3D release I’ve seen is either nauseating or the 3D is so perfectly ingrained in the photography I forget that it’s even their. But, with Dredd I was able to fully absorb the silly extremes of the slow motion, sparkly violence and I enjoyed every minute of the experience. Unfortunately, I still do not have a 3D set, so this review pertains only to the 2D version of the film, which is included here on the same disc as the 3D version.

What’s interesting about this transfer is the look of analogue as filtered through digital lenses. Travis and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle take major steps to recreate the grainy, dirty look of a ‘70s B-actioneer shot on film. When I saw the film in theaters, I actually assumed that the texture I was seeing was an issue with the projection screen, but now I see that it was an intended part of the image. This texture does look an awful lot like film grain, but is clearly digital noise and it runs consistently over the entire transfer. There are a couple of shots where the noise turns to blocking, specifically between some of the green and red blends. If I didn’t know this was part of the intended look, I’d probably mark this as a problem for the transfer. There isn’t an excess of fine detail in the extreme close-ups, but the complexity of element separation on wider shots is very impressive, especially scenes that set up the geography of Peach Trees. The colour palette is pretty consistent throughout the film. The basic key hues are the blue and red of the Judge uniforms, the gold of Anderson’s hair, and an overriding sickly green wash. Skin tones are surprisingly natural, even with all the green and red shading. The 3D staging is obviously flatter in 2D, but the weird compositions aren’t lost and the harsh foreground, middleground, background divide is well-maintained whenever the focus is pulled sharply. The only thing that falls noticeably short in 2D is the digital gore, which doesn’t really blend with the real stuff around it. The sparkly stuff that accompanies the SloMo sequences looks super-sharp, though.

Dredd (2D)

Audio


What’s a semi-experimental, hyper-violent, sci-fi action flick without a super aggressive soundtrack? Dredd’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack (optimized for 11.1 Neo:X playback) is among the most aggressive I’ve heard all year. The opening chase sets the stage with grinding vehicle engines, bursts of differentiated gunfire, screaming innocent victims, and the punishing smash of Dredd’s boots. The directional momentum is wide and the LFE enhancement is brutal. Another standout sequence is the bit where Ma-Ma’s clan opens up on Dredd with gigantic gatling guns that demolish an entire level of Peach Trees. More subtle additions include the radio communication sounds and general Peach Trees ambience, but the most stylistically dynamic sequences are those moments when Anderson enters someone’s mind and things turn downright abstract. And then there’s the score. Following in the footsteps of recent eye-opening electronic soundtracks, like Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy, Basement Jaxx’s Attack the Block, and The Chemical Bros’ Hanna, comes Paul Leonard-Morgan’s John Carpenter-meets-Ministry masterpiece of industrial noise. To create some of these mechanical, synth-heavy tunes, Leonard-Morgan modified sampled pop music to a fraction of normal speed, then he augmented it with every manner of synthetic sound, which gives it directional enhancement (sort of a non-symphonic, lo-fi equivalent to what Hans Zimmer did with parts of his Inception score). The music is often the loudest element in a given sequence and it’s given plenty of rein throughout the channels (sometimes the driving beat sits perfectly in the center of the room and the SloMo drop-outs swish around the room quite effectively), but never overwhelms the dialogue or effects work.

Dredd (2D)

Extras


Extras begin with Mega-City Masters: 35 Years of Judge Dredd (14:30, HD), a look back at Dredd’s comic book history and everything the character represented, including a nice collection of illustrations and interviews with artist/co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, writer/co-creator John Wagner, artist Brian Bolland, 2000 AD editor/writer Matt Smith, and Kick Ass writer Mark Millar. Day of Chaos: The Visual Effects of Dredd (15:20, HD) covers the collaborative processes of the film’s production design, photography, and effects work, with production illustrations, before & after comparisons, and interviews with visual effects supervisors Neil Miller, Max Poolman, and Jon Thum, executive producers Michael Eloson and Andrew MacDonald, producer/writer Alex Garland, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and digital camera supervisor Stefan Ciupek.

The disc also features a brief EPK (1:50, HD), Dredd’s Gear (on props and costumes, 2:30, HD), The 3rd Dimension (on 3D photography, 2:00, HD), Welcome to Peach Trees (on production and set design, 2:30, HD), all featuring interviews with the cast and crew, including Urban, Thirlby, Wagner, Garland, Travis, and conceptual artist Jock. Things are completed with a motion comic prequel (3:00, HD), a trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.

Dredd (2D)

Overall


Like Lexi Alexander’s Punisher reboot War Zone, Dredd is a perfect ultra-simplification of an ultra-simple and ultra-violent comic book source. I don’t necessarily want every adult-oriented comic adaptation to take this route, but, in moderation, a good kick in the balls is just what the doctor ordered. Set alongside the utter whimsy of 2012’s other great comic book adaptation, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Dredd proves the genre doesn’t need to be anchored too deeply in reality, nor does it need to betray its characters’ origins to work in a cinematic context (the most ‘accurate’ version of the 2000 AD comic as I understand it lies somewhere between this film and the Stallone one). The film’s gritty look is enough to keep this Blu-ray transfer from being reference level stuff, but the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is among the best I’ve heard in some time.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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