published Friday, September 21st, 2012

Don’t think too much for retro ‘Dredd 3D’

Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle

In an age where every other action film references Sept. 11 or the Occupy movement, “Dredd 3D” is centered squarely in the fears of 1983.

An irradiated wasteland. Overpopulation. Society under martial law, where police act as judge, jury and executioner. Rush lyricist Neil Peart warned us this might happen.

Don’t think about it too much — screenwriter Alex Garland certainly didn’t. Instead he focuses on the bleak tone, simplicity of character and cathartic violence of the comic-strip source material. The result is a B-movie success — and the rare superhero film that revels in its carnage instead of stifling it for a PG-13 rating.

“Judge Dredd” has been a popular British crime-fighter since 1977, long before the 1993 “Judge Dredd” movie, whose atrocities include a gratuitous love interest, the removal of Dredd’s helmet and Rob Schneider in comic relief.

This “Dredd” features Karl Urban, and credit the guy for not having a runaway ego. He talks like an animatronic version of Clint Eastwood and reveals only the bottom third of his face throughout the film. I’m guessing 60 percent of the audience will leave the theater thinking he’s Thomas Jane.

As dystopian futures go, the one in “Dredd” is pretty bleak. People live in “Mega-Cities,” where crime is rampant and due process is optional. Judge Dredd and his psychic partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) respond to a crime in the low-income tower Peach Trees. Gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) decides to pin the judges in and execute them. The rest of the movie resembles a claustrophobic “Assault on Precinct 13.”

From the start, “Dredd” does several things right.

The back story takes about 12 seconds. We know nothing about how Dredd became Dredd or even his simplest motivations. Here’s your method-acting cue, Karl: This character likes to blow stuff up.

The movie is a hard “R.” The street drug “Slo-mo” was invented, apparently so we can savor each flesh-piercing bullet and body falling 60 stories before turning to pulp on the concrete. Are you getting the sense there’s a lot of depraved violence in “Dredd”? If you don’t still pull the wings off flies for fun, you should have stopped reading six paragraphs ago.

The 3-D is good. The drug-use scenes in particular are awash in kaleidoscope colors; more akin to the cool practical effects in “The Tree of Life” than the usual visual overload.

It’s not all exploding rainbows and eviscerated unicorns. Sacrifices were made in the name of Hollywood, including a very uninspired look at the future — no budget for robots or aliens, apparently — and a helmetless (?!?) sidekick who is clearly too meek for this judge work. Think she’ll get taken hostage at some point?

The themes also are dated. There are times when “Dredd 3D” feels like an escapist companion piece to “The Day After.” But there we go again, thinking too much. No sense in ruining such a fine piece of cheap entertainment.

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