Confession time: I actually enjoyed the 1995 Sylvester Stallone-starring Judge Dredd at the time. Stallone was a pretty good choice to play Dredd, Diane Lane was at the peak of her hawtness, and even Rob Schneider was still somewhat fresh and funny. Only the direction and the action scenes were somewhat lacklustre, but overall it was a fun time at the movies (for an excitable teenage TMBF who wasn't too discerning about what he paid to watch). And not being a huge fan of the comics, it didn't bother me that Dredd took off his helmet. But 17 years later, it's a franchise ripe for a reboot, one that's more faithful to the source material. And with Alex Garland - frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle - on writing and producing duties and a British production company and crew (the 2000 AD comic where Judge Dredd was introduced is based in the U.K.), it looked like the franchise is in good hands.
It's certainly entirely different from the first film, and it comes with strengths as well as weaknesses.
In the future, America is an irradiated wasteland, and the survivors live in Mega-City One - a vast dystopian metropolis that houses 800 million inhabitants. Law and order is upheld by the Judges of the Hall of Justice, who are authorised to act as judge, jury and executioner, and the most feared among them is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban). Dredd is partnered with and tasked with evaluating rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who is inexperienced but possesses unique psychic powers; their first assignment is to investigate a murder case at the Peach Trees tower block. The 200-story slum tower is controlled by the psychotic gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who also controls the production and distribution of a new drug called Slo-Mo. When Dredd and Anderson arrest Kay (Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma's lieutenants, she orders the entire block sealed in order to trap the two Judges inside - and for her men to hunt them down and kill them.
The main thing this adaptation gets right is the tone. This is grim, moody, stylish and ultraviolent action, just as the comic was. Ma-Ma's drug is called Slo-Mo because it makes the brain feel as if time is moving at a crawl, which is an excuse for director Pete Travis to employ extreme slow-motion in shots that look pretty awesome - especially when it is also used during hard-R-rated action scenes. I'm not one for cinematic gore, but Dredd actually makes a bullet ripping through a guy's jaw - in Slo-Mo - look beautiful, and that is some feat. There's some gorgeous visuals here, married to a unique approach to action scenes that's reminiscent of John Carpenter's Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13; a slow and deliberate doling out of violence rather than the usual frenzied, rapid-fire pyrotechnics. It's almost not even an action movie, closer to a thriller.
Which had the unfortunate effect of leaving me somewhat cold. I can respect the creative decision to be different, but I rarely found this movie to be thrilling or suspenseful. Maybe because I'd just watched The Raid: Redemption (a severely marred version that is totally not worth watching, that is), which has a near-identical premise of cops trapped in an apartment building full of murderous criminals, but the film never really gripped me the way a good action thriller should. I feel like in its commitment to avoid all the usual action film clichés, it also left out a lot of the genre's tropes that make it fun; intricate and creative action sequences,
But Urban delivers. He is clearly aware that he is playing an iconic character and does a deliberately mannered performance, in his body language and the lower half of his face not obscured by Dredd's trademark helmet. As befits the comicbook character, Dredd seems like he's always in complete control of the situation, yet it does not undercut the sense of danger inherent in the plot. And Ma-Ma makes for a pretty dangerous situation; a none-too-physically-imposing woman like her is a unique villain, and Lena Headey gives her an unhinged viciousness that makes her effectively threatening. But personally, I thought Olivia Thirlby's Judge Anderson stole the show. Her psychic powers were cool, and though Thirlby looks tiny and vulnerable next to Ma-Ma's psychotic goons, she keeps her nerves under control and her wits about her enough to kick plenty of ass.
So a great cast, some terrific visuals, a unique (albeit a little too low-key) tone and a much greater respect for the source material; all these are enough to make Dredd a better movie than 1995's Judge Dredd. Unfortunately, it falls short in one respect, and that's in the realization of the dystopian future of Mega-City One. This is a low-budget British/South African co-production, and it shows - in the cars on the highways during the opening car chase scene (especially the van that Dredd chases, that looks like a 1979 Mitsubishi Delica), in the design of the Judges' Lawmaster motorbike, and in how Mega-City One looks just like the modern-day slums of Johannesburg where it was filmed. Judge Dredd had flying cars and stuff, and even the comics played up the bizarre futurism of its setting. Its lack of a big budget is probably why they chose the premise of being trapped in a single building, but during the scenes outside of it, it shows.
But I can respect Travis wanting to give it a more real, gritty look. I can respect them doing away with the giant eagle epaulettes on the Judges' uniforms in favour of a more utilitarian body-armour look. I can respect them designing a Lawmaster that is actually road-worthy, instead of Judge Dredd's bike that can't actually steer. And I can totally respect a faithful adaptation of 2000 AD that gets the cynicism, the fatalism, the stylishness and the graphic violence right. I'd be down for a sequel that would get a bigger budget to play with and give us more Dredd and Anderson - but it looks like that's not going to happen, seeing as the movie was a major flop and didn't make much money even in the U.K. That's sad. I could've liked it better, but it deserved better than what it's getting.
(By the way, I just got done watching a few clips of Judge Dredd on YouTube. Man, TMBF circa 1995 had terrible taste.)
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