CINEMA: News Weekly
Violent journey into the heart of darkness
, November 24, 2012
Dredd 3D (rated MA 15+) is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
“I am the Law.”
Faceless. Implacable. A hyper-masculine, high-tech Fury who executes justice with savage efficiency, Judge Dredd is the embodiment of a particular understanding of law and order. He is a cipher, an enactment of a particular drive in nature, especially human nature. And now he stars in a brutal, but surprisingly beautiful, 3D movie, Dredd 3D.
The plot is simple, the narrative elegant, the logic relentless. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) has been assigned a trainee psychic judge, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) for a final field-test.
Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby)
and Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) in Dredd 3D
They take up the case of three bodies, skinned and drugged, that have plummeted from the top floor of Peach Trees, a 200-storey mega-block with a significant crime problem. There is more to the case than at first glance, as the judges are blockaded in Peach Trees, with the inhabitants, commanded by the terrifying drug-lady Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), after their heads.
From its opening flyover scenes, the audience is exposed to a world falling apart at the seams where the Judge System, with its servants’ extra-ordinary powers, is the only protection against widespread savagery. Cleverly, the film seeks not to do too much. Rather than try to squeeze social commentary, character development and ethics in with the incredible action pieces, it opts to simply present one day in the life of Judge Dredd.
The script is sharp and stripped of any unnecessary dialogue and concepts. It’s a masterfully elegant, terse piece of writing with no lines wasted, giving only the barest of exposition and expecting the audience to be smart enough to fill in the blanks. It is a superbly visual script as well — if something can be shown rather than said, then the words are dispensed with.
The soundtrack pumps and grinds — a clever, gritty techno mix that seeks only to emphasise mood and emotional resonance. It harmonises and counterpoints marvellously with the intense, noirish, Caravaggio-inspired 3D cinematography where the blackness blots out the filth and grime; and the rich red of the blood riots across the silver screen, almost as if it were a character in its own right.
As further evidence of an elegant, intelligent and integrated production design, the drug that provides the stimulus for the film’s plot, Slo-Mo, which slows down the brain’s perception of time, enables the sculpting of complex and sophisticated 3D visuals, allowing broken glass to look like glittering diamonds and fire-fights to take place with supreme, but balletic, clarity.
The restrained understatement of the production gives the actors a clean canvas on which to paint their performances. From Lena Headey channelling Patti Smith as she enacts the sadistic hooker-turned-crime-boss, Ma-Ma, and Debbie Harry inspiring Olivia Thirlby in her role as the rookie, to Karl Urban’s incredible performance that allows only his mouth and chin to be seen, the acting is astonishing.
Much commentary surrounding Judge Dredd, including the publicity issued by its creators, dwells on Dredd’s “fascism”. However, in much the same way that Batman is no apologia for capitalism, it is much more arguable to understand Dredd in pre-modern political terms.
Going back to the Ancients, and onto the Mediaevals, and their intellectual heirs in the Latin political tradition, the story’s creators convey an understanding of the primary role of government, its essential function being that of the maintenance of order.
In the savage, chaotic future world depicted in Dredd 3D, there is little else that the “government” can do but try to maintain some semblance of order. It some ways, it’s an anarchist’s “utopia” where all the government does is provide basic services.
The comic series on which the movie is based has always asked awkward questions of the political order, and, while not endorsing Dredd’s ruthless approach to justice, is just as critical of the realities of “democratic” society.
The 2012 film, however, is not primarily political commentary repeating the usual tropes about how poverty and inequality cause crime. It is a pure cinematic expression of Aristotle’s understanding of drama in that its role is cathartic. It allows the audience to vicariously experience the wickedness of criminality and the consequences that are reaped from such sowing. They are exposed to a pure conception of natural justice, a justice that considers mercy and compassion an optional extra, much as the natural world itself does.
Dredd 3D is not a comfortable and relaxing night at the pictures. It’s a visceral and violent journey into the heart of darkness of mankind, but beautifully constructed, both aurally and visually, and elegant scripted.
It perfectly expresses an ancient understanding of law and order, one more common to Homer and Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Webster, than it is to our tech-entranced age. It is a roller-coaster of a wild ride, replete with meaning, but dripping with blood.