Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Dredd (2012) Poster
2012 was a somewhat odd year for movies for a number of reasons, but one of the oddest was the fact that it featured a great number of enjoyable summer blockbusters...almost none of which actually opened in the summer.

I'm not so jaded that I can't enjoy a big fireworks display of a movie, as long as it's done with a certain level of inventiveness and panache, and Chronicle, The Hunger Games, The Cabin In the Woods, Looper, 21 Jump Street, Rise of the Guardians, John Carter, and The Pirates! all scratched that itch rather better than a lot of Hollywood's recent offerings in this arena. A couple of them are downright great, and even the ones that were merely passable diversions were loads more fun than the movies that opened during the actual summer season*, the soggy likes of Battleship and Prometheus and that Snow White movie (no, not that one, the other one). Even Pixar and Christopher Nolan let me down this year. Oh yeah, there was The Avengers, which was almost the platonic ideal of a popcorn movie, but that opened on May 1st, which, sorry, ain't summer where I come from. (I come from Canada.)

And then there was Dredd. (Spoilers follow.)

Dredd didn't do very well in theatres, though I'm told that it's the best-selling DVD of the admittedly young year. This fact has awakened some hope of a sequel amongst the film's nascent cult, and it's this fact that made me consider some issues about this film...which I'm not entirely comfortable with.

To get the obvious out of the way, Judge Dredd was created in 1977 by John Wagner (writer) and Carlos Esquerra (artist), first appearing in only the second-ever issue of the evergreen British comics anthology 2000 AD. The character is part of the wave of punk-rock comics of the time, created as a satire of the American fetish for rogue law enforcement officers who act as "judge, jury and executioner", and inhabiting a berzerk cyberpunk world that played a major role in defining "cyberpunk" in the first place. As with rock 'n' roll, Americans may have invented comics, but the British were the ones who really saw the art forms' potential, and a level of tongue-in-cheek irony of a kind foreign to contemporary American superhero stories pervaded the strip. Dredd became, and remains, a wildly popular character in the UK, but Americans mostly know him from the awful 1996 Sylvester Stallone movie. The fact that Dredd removed his helmet was the least of the movie's problems; more than anything else, it seemed like adapting Dredd into an actual big-budget American action movie had robbed the movie of its ironic, subversive charge. (Robocop was heavily inspired by Judge Dredd, and I'd argue it captures the strip better than ether of the nominal adaptations. Perhaps not coincidentally, director Paul Verhoeven is European.)

Dredd is a fun, quite well-made movie, and I enjoyed it tremendously. But it falls prey to a tendency that's become overwhelming in geeky adaptations: they labour under a weird, creeping sense of obligation that sometimes overwhelms the need to make the best movie possible, or even the best adaptation possible.

With this movie, director Pete Travis set out to make a movie that would be much truer to the character--which actually seems to boil down to the fact that they wanted a Dredd movie where he never took his helmet off.

Look, I get that this is a big deal in the comic, but this is a movie, people. In much the same way that geeks moan endlessly when an actress of the wrong hair colour is cast for a comic-book role, this seems like a weird fixation on a superficial detail. I'm not saying that it's not nice that Karl Urban's Dredd keeps his helmet on; I'm just saying that making that the lynchpin of the movie resulted in a rather underwhelming story.

Because if you switch out the character of Dredd, you'd be left with a relatively generic, though well-made, action story (as everyone keeps saying, the similarities to The Raid: Redemption are inescapable), and that seems like a missed opportunity. Travis and company were quite open about the fact that they were going to make a small-scale story due to budget issues, and while that's fine as far as it goes, the problem is that the script thinks too small. The vast, sprawling, nightmare world of Mega-City One is basically ignored (and what little we see of it just looks like a generic, modern metropolis) and the bulk of the action reduced to a single, admittedly huge, apartment building. Fair enough, but there's no sense of the personality of the city surrounding it either. Indeed, there's little trace of the tonal subversiveness or snotty nose-thumbing that makes the comic so memorable either. Even Dredd himself is given very little to play off of; sure, he's the authoritarian hard-ass we expect, but this isn't really explored by the story in any serious way. Dredd never, for instance, has to make a choice between following the rules and basic humanity, and the ramifications of this borderline-fascist legal system don't play a role in the plot at all, other than the shock of a cadre of corrupt Judges who pop up at the halfway point.

And therein lies the rub: this movie seems to have been made solely to validate the character after the Stallone debacle, to give fans of the character something to point to to show that he's actually good. In that way, it plays directly into the modern idea that movies are somehow "better" than other media, and that no matter how much you love that comic or novel or TV show, it hasn't arrived until it's been turned into a big-budget CGI-fest. Even this wouldn't be so bad if the resulting movies didn't end up feeling like they were made using a checklist, afraid to take too many chances, providing as direct a transcription as possible for the sake of the fans. We're a long way from the era when Jaws and the Godfather ended up being a vast improvement on the original pulp novels.

Which brings us to the possibility of a sequel. Again, the filmmakers are on record as saying that, should the first film do well, we'd be getting a sequel featuring some of the more unique elements of the comic. Again, I get the necessity inherent here, but this seems to be the standard approach for far too many comic-book and other "geek" properties--a small-scale, unambitious movie that sets up a potentially better sequel. This doesn't have to be bad, of course, but too often it seems like the filmmakers are shirking their responsibility by doling out the property in bite-sized chunks rather than straining themselves to deliver the best movie they possibly can. It's like if the first Star Wars movie had only hinted at the big Death Star battle, with Lucas promising we'd get to see it if the first movie made enough money.

What I really object to about this is that it puts a burden on the movie-consuming public--give lots of money to the corporation, and maybe you'll get a treat! Obviously this attitude popped up organically among film nerds over the years, but Hollywood has been quick to exploit it. Essentially they're trying to be rewarded for stretching the property as thin as they possibly can, and it smacks of a con job.

Don't get me wrong: if a Dredd sequel gets made, I'll be first in line. But it would be nice to get the sense that the filmmakers had given it their all the first time, that they weren't selling a promise as much as a movie.

*And then, just to compound the weirdness, the two best movies of the summer were Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild, both ultra-precious indie movies of the kind that usually haunts arthouses in the early fall. And they did well!

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