Judgement Time for Dredd

dredd_ver2_xlg

Last week, instead of watching busty Polish milkmaids being sexy with butter churns on the Eurovision Song Contest, I watched a 2012 action film starring Karl Urban. While the movie was less… visually indulgent than that, it was also better paced, more exciting, and had a better soundtrack. I also learnt that Olivia Thirlby is a bit lovely.

00028399.Olivia.Thirlby

And kind of rocks that dirty blonde dye job.

Based on the long-running British comic series of 50% the same name (the other 50% being the prefix “Judge”), Dredd is set in a semi-apocalyptic future America. Mega City One: billions of lives packed into a giant megatropolis stretching from Boston to Washington DC. Policing this sprawl of humanity are the Judges, peacekeepers who use invasive citywide surveillance, lethal force, and on-the-spot sentencing to try and curb the ever escalating crime rate. Every one of them is judge, jury, and frequently executioner (and don’t worry, the film doesn’t miss its opportunity to hammer home that particular expression). We follow Judge Dredd as he and rookie-on-assessment Judge Anderson respond to a triple homicide call at Peach Trees, a towering city block five times the height of normal skyscrapers. Their investigation attracts the attention of Ma Ma, dangerous gang leader and de facto ruler of the Peach Trees block. Allowing the two to leave would mean more Judges returning to end her rule, so Ma Ma traps Dredd and Anderson inside the block and orders her men to hunt them down.

Dredd has been compared a lot to The Raid. Both films came out around the same time and both use the same high concept framing device of a police force getting trapped inside a high-rise controlled by a dangerous gang and having to fight for their survival. While the premise is the same, each film develops it in their own direction. The Raid is a balletic display of the aggression and beauty of martial art pencak silat. Dredd is a straight up 80s-style action flick where the best defence is bullets and sarcasm.

The campy machismo of that decade’s best action pulp runs thick through Dredd. The film has a healthy supply of quips and one-liners, coincidence battles it out with deus ex machina for control of the plot, and the hero characters are almost entirely bulletproof. At one point Dredd runs away from three mini-guns unloading so much ammo at him that they annihilate an entire corner of this incredibly vast complex, killing untold hundreds. He staggers away without a graze on his stubbly chin. In fact, his immediate reaction is to hunt down and unceremoniously chuck the villain’s second-in-command off the central balcony.

dredd_trailer_news

Pictured: Dredd, in no danger whatsoever.

What we have then is a better example of a revived 1980s action film than anything Stallone or Schwarzenegger have been involved with recently. Dredd establishes its scenario and then goes, a brisk 90 minutes of energy and movement. There is no lull or downtime, no padding or fat. No subplots to get hung up on or character motivation to get bogged down in. Just premise and resolution.

The plot contains story beats that are overly familiar, but Dredd earns a ton of points by pleasantly subverting them. Take the aforementioned second-in-command. He’s been established in such a fashion that we the audience expect to see him as a “mini-boss” encounter later on, the way that baddies in these films always are. Instead he is abruptly and unexpectedly dealt with and then we move on. There are several scenes just like this, where the traditional narrative of this genre leads you to expect a certain outcome that Dredd eagerly flips the finger to.

Anderson’s character arc is a good example of this: she shows early jitters when the job goes sour and is set up in multiple scenarios as the damsel in distress. Again, the film lets your expectation go hang. Instead of remaining timid or developing “inner strength” while externally remaining weak, Anderson grows into the aggressor role of a Judge, learning the ruthlessness and efficiency of Dredd. She never needs saving, she gets out of messes on her own, and she is more than capable of fucking people up.

This is also indicative of a more modern leaning in Dredd. Unlike the films that serve as its inspiration, women are not sidelined. Of the three main characters, two are women: Olivia Thirlby’s Anderson, and the chief antagonist Ma Ma. Lena Headey’s languid drugged-up performance blends well with the fear inherent in her subordinates; she seems relaxed and softly spoken, but nobody questions her for even a second.

dredd

On performances, Karl Urban’s gravelly sarcasm is a perfect fit for the broader strokes of the script. Incidentally, neither the helmet nor the grimace ever come off. That’s proper dedication to accurately portraying your character.

The film generally shies away from CGI. There are two major areas you’ll find it – establishing shots of Mega City One and the Peach Trees tower block, and in the Slo Mo drug sequences – and this is where a certain cheapness lies. The establishing shots aren’t too bad, grimy landscapes that easily establish the scale of the world and how ultimately insignificant individuals are. You don’t spend too long with them, otherwise you’d notice the relative simplicity of the CGI architecture.

Peach_Trees

By their very nature, the Slo Mo sequences don’t fair as well. One puff of the drug inhaler sees the picture contrast rocket up and playback speed drop to about 30%. Garish colour distortion taints everything. Now I personally quite like this. It’s cheap-looking yes, but in my brain it connects to some element of 90s culture, a kind of angular neon otherness seen in the Wipeout games and Prodigy music videos. One thing we can all agree on though is that the CGI blood in these scenes often looks a bit shite, weirdly rubbery and unreal.

That’s my only real complaint though because I really enjoyed the film. It’s not the best in the world, but nor is it trying to be. With its soundtrack of grumblingly oppressive electronica, its slick and efficient action scenes, and its game cast giving appropriately comic-book-broad performances, Dredd delivers a solid action romp. Popcorn cinema at its finest.

Advertisements

The Fourth of May Be With You

May the Fourth be with you, said the lispy Jedi. Yes, it’s the one day in the year where the American date system is something other that purposefully confusing: Star Wars Day. The title is intentional by the way, because that is the proper way to date things. Anyway, here’s an appropriately themed article to celebrate (and to take my mind off the sudden hayfever attack that has left me sounding like a snotty Darth Vader).

So then: midi-chlorians. The microscopic life-form found in every living being in the galaxy that allows access to the Force when they are in high concentration. They were brought to the attention of the world by a bit of exposition in Episode 1 that stopped mastery of the Force being an egalitarian skill and turned it into a birthright. Because heroes aren’t determined people successfully dealing with difficult situations. They’re genetically destined saviours.

anakin-skywalker-jake-lloyd

All a bit Aryan ideal.

Here’s what I was thinking instead.

I’d like to think that rather than being the reason why an individual can use the Force, midi-chlorians are simply part of a larger picture. The Jedi Council shown in the prequels is incredibly conservative, frequently burying its head in the sand rather than investigate the rise of Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious and other changes happening in the galaxy. Why? Because they have a system that has been in place for X period of time and has served them perfectly well, and midi-didians are part of that. Given the Jedi Council’s role in the films, Palpatine would have been tested before being allowed into office, lest someone with Force powers started mind-controlling the Senate into doing their bidding. A high concentration would have meant instant disbarring from holding office or at least arousal of suspicion, but if Midi-Pyrénéesians weren’t the be all and end all Lucas has ret-conned the series to make them, then a Palpatine with a low blood concentration would have been able to sneak by the Jedi Council. That would be why they didn’t suspect him when the shit really started hitting the hyperdrive.

I have more defence for the Mini-Clubmans. If they were part of the reason the Force can be manipulated but not the entire reason, it explains the various characters throughout the films that are resistant to Jedi suggestion. Maybe Jabba the Hutt had a super high concentration of midi-musicians in his blood, but because he never trained in the Force (or some other reason or combination thereof) he didn’t have any actual abilities. If there were multiple reasons behind the Force (some clear, some murky, and some unknown entirely), it would return the power to a more classless democratic standing too.

I had these ideas and more in mind, and I was planning to flesh them out in honour of the day (not necessarily because they’re any good, but I needed something to do while my allergy tablets kicked in).

Then I did some Googling on the subject because I am a diligent researcher.

This has depressed me.

Now I really hope J.J. Abrams just ignores the whole mess.

Non-Stop, briefly

Non-Stop is better than it appears to be. Nowhere near as good as that other film starring Liam Neeson that is way better than you’d expect, but put it this way; I entered the theatre braced for diverting brain rot and nothing more. I left pleasantly surprised.

 non-stop-poster

Non-Stop is for around 60-or-70% of its run time a very enjoyable thriller. Liam Neeson is an air marshall who starts receiving anonymous texts on his supposedly encrypted phone (that incidentally looks like a Chinese knock off of an iPhone crossed with one of those early Android phones with slide out keyboards) threatening to kill passengers on board the flight if he doesn’t arrange the wiring of $150 million dollars to an account, an account that happens to bear Neeson’s name. Cue lots of rushing around, muttered conversations, and ever escalating paranoia as our grumbling Irishman tries to figure out what the hell is going on, while everything he does only indicts him further in the eyes of the plane’s passengers and the world at large.

The film expertly wrings a huge amount of tension out of this. From its opening scene, Non-Stop establishes something isn’t right. There’s a queasiness that runs through the film, with the enclosed nature of the plane and the frantic yet powerless Neeson digging a pit of unease in your stomach. The film takes pleasure in constantly wrong-footing you on who the anonymous threat could be, and how they’ll enact their plans. Only in the second half does the film really pull the trigger on more typical action. Up until that point it’s a relatively low-key affair of quietly tense discussions and accusations, and the few action scenes present are, like violence in real life, all the more unsettling because of their unexpected explosiveness.

Sadly, the tightly-coiled spring the film had been winding snaps as the threat is revealed, leading into generic bad guy speechifying and big but rote set-piece confrontations, the plot nosediving into deus ex machina convenience. After the promise the film had shown, this is unsatisfying to say the least.

The damp squib of the ending is emblematic of a bigger problem – it’s not very well written. Dialogue is a big sticking point, swimming in stock character cliches and heavily expositional. There’s a particular speech that Neeson gives where he basically reads out his character’s spec sheet, and from then on it’s completely impossible to ignore the hackneyed tropes at play in every layer of the film.

There’s something good here, semi-realised. The direction is solid if perhaps uninspiring, the acting of a good standard (Neeson’s impotence here is a welcome spin on a character type he’s played many times before, the supporting cast do a nice job portraying real people despite their underwritten roles). And of course there’s that delicious tension. With a limp second half and universally poor dialogue though, Non-Stop is merely decent.

The Wolf of Wall Street, briefly

The Wolf of Wall Street is a long film about self-centered people getting fucked up, fucked over, or just plain fucked.

poster

It’s a film all about the glory of excess, the kind of consequence-free decadence that a big bank balance can bring. We follow Leonardo DiCaprio’s likeably dislikeable stock trader Jordan Belfort as he rises from the ashes of the 1987 stock market crash, working his way back to the high life of neon extravagance and insincerity.

Adapted from the memoir of the real life Jordan Belfort, apparently without too much embellishment, the main feeling I left the film with was “that would’ve worked better as a miniseries”. It covers a solid ten year or so period. In pulling events from Belfort’s life to construct a tighter narrative arc of the rise and fall, it ends up feeling somewhat disjointed.

Not that any of the film is actually bad. This is well written, stylish, frequently very funny stuff, and the huge cast (full of “oh it’s him/her!” faces) is incredibly game. DiCaprio as Belfort is superb fun – a riches-stunted adolescent who preens and pouts his way across the screen, devouring scenery like a foppish black hole, with just enough realism sprinkled through the performance that his smaller realer moments in the fall part of the story don’t feel unearned or even unexpected.

Generally as big and bold as its subject matter, direction is also strong, my favourite touch being the use of music; 80s tunes designating success, 90s songs hinting at change.

Again though, I can’t help but feel the tale would have been better told over a six hour, six part miniseries. The film does have a kinetic hyperactivity that would certainly have been lost stretching the story out, but it would have benefited from more time to develop some characters and scenes (in particular, the collapse of Belfort’s second marriage feels like a largely untapped seam). The film sits a shade under three hours, jam-packed as it is with myriad characters and stories all coming and going. If you catch it at the cinema, get a big bag of popcorn; this is a bum-numbing undertaking.

The Wolf of Wall Street is garish, aggressively sexual, hugely hedonistic, pretty funny, and certainly worth a watch. Whether you’ll want to return for a second viewing is another matter entirely.