Since Bryan Singer’s X-Men initiated something of a resurgence to the genre twelve years ago, there has been an unmistakeable template by which comic book films are constructed. To see one that ignores even one of these rules is refreshing. Pete Travis’ take upon the 1970s 2000AD comic series gleefully breaks several, starting with its willingness to take itself completely seriously. Culminating in the pun-a-second-self-aware-fest that was Joss Whedon’s Avengers film earlier this year, films of this genre have taken a decided and universal turn towards self-mockery and lightness, perhaps an indication of saturation. Dredd remains unabashedly straight-laced and literal. Nor does it strive for a mass audience serving 12A rating, or have a typically franchise serving, sequel prepping ending. That any of these things should be seen as points of praise rather than assumed standards may seem odd to anyone without an understanding of the low expectations of the comic book genre, but as indications of the unusual direction this latest Dredd reboot has been taken they are telling.
Dredd, penned by 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland, strips back this reboot of to its core, favouring hard-nosed action, (and visceral, gory violence) within a closed single location over plot complexity, and this is a wise approach. It is tightly and leanly scripted, and Garland includes just enough background information to initiate newcomers to this admittedly simplistic world before moving action to a single tower block location where it stays until the films close. Mirroring the closed format of something like Die Hard or Assault on Precinct 13, Garland constructs a simple frame for the character to work within that has proved effective for this sort of film type: scale the enclosed building, demolishing barriers both human and physical, and reach the villain near the top. Such a narrative frame, whilst unambitious and predictable, draws the focus into the character, provides a clear motive and task, and lets the film run through at pace allowing for the set pieces to provide the excitement. As a film of this type, Dredd is undeniably effective. The action is satisfying and rewarding, and somehow manages to avoid that feeling of repetitiousness that its comparable contemporary The Raid; Redemption became quickly laboured by, probably because the character perpetrating it has a charm that no character in that film could muster.
Karl Urban, as the titular Judge, is given little to do behind the trademark Judge helmet, expression limited to his jawline and the five or so lines he is given throughout the film, but he plays the role commandingly and effectually, and delivers said lines (mostly one-liners) convincingly. He is accompanied by Olivia Thirlby as Anderson, a pretty physic trainee Judge who obviously doesn’t wear a helmet (it would interfere with his physic abilities naturally.) as they scale the building to arrest and adjudicate the piece’s villain Ma-Ma (played by an unimpressive Lana Headley ) after she traps them in there during what should have been a rudimentary situation.
The film unsurprising does not rest on the strength of its acting, or its plotting, both of which appear to have come second to the film’s impressive aesthetic. Inspired by the 80s action/sci-fi films of Paul Verhoeven such as Total Recall and Robocop, the film emulates both their concreted futuristic environments and over the top stylised violence, if not the satire that is pivotal to that director’s films. Rows of grey tower blocks and endless black vehicles make up a skyline that is futuristic, but not unrecognisably so, and in turn computer generated, but not abrasively so. This drabness of exterior is counterposed by the flashiness of the visual style of the action scenes that make up the mass of the time spent inside the central Tower Block. Borrowing directly from the aesthetic of modern comic book film aficionado Zach Snyder (of 300 and Watchmen,) Travis creates heavily stylised, hyper slow motion action scenes, using the plot device of a recreational drug that slows the user’s body to one-percent of normal speed as a device to play with 3D and utilised a hyper-accentuated visual style. Whilst unmistakably gimmicky (the drug is even called slo-mo), it all looks fairly spectacular, and the 3D is some of the most effective to date.
Dredd then, is free of pretense in everything it does - unabashedly simplistic and direct, unashamedly violent and exploitative, and moreover entirely serious - and this is its greatest strength. It is rare to see a film of this type now, a throwback to the 80s genre film, and in reconjuring that spirit of excess and vulgarity, Dredd makes for a very watchable, very humble action film. In throwing caution to the wind in terms of the comic book film adaptation rulebook, it will certainly not find a mass audience, and it may not find an immediate audience at all, but Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s laudably low-minded Dredd reimagining is certain to become a cult favourite before long.