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Dredd (2012): stylized violent fun in convincingly post-apocalyptic Megacity 1 (Cape Town and Johannesburg).

September 30, 2012

It’s all in the grimace.

Never let it be said that contemporary South African cities do not provide convincing post-apocalyptic cinema opportunities. Like the fantastic District 9, this film’s Megacity 1 is shot in the very mean streets of urban Johannesburg and Cape Town, featuring a host of extras who look quite at home wandering the streets and slums and apartment complexes of this convincingly realised world. Made this expat almost homesick!

Simply put, this film is an outright artistic and cinematic success; an entertaining blast – especially nice for those of us aging 80s kids who fondly recall 2000AD and the original Judge Dredd graphic novels. It seems to be getting ignored on circuit here in the USA (I can’t really understand why: perhaps the younger generation can’t see it, US kids have probably never heard of Judge Dredd, and it has no ‘big’ stars). The film received an above-everage 77% on rottentomatoes, despite being clearly misunderstood by most of the non-geek reviewers on that site. And it’s especially effective compared with the lame tongue-in-cheek Stallone, Diane Lane version some years ago (Lane was good at least and the visuals were terrific if overly slick). This Dredd is directed by Brit Pete Travis and is a refreshingly internationally-flavoured production (a UK/South African co-production spiced up by New Zealander Urban and UK’s bad-girl Headey). This, of course, is why the film is gritty, authentic and violent, and probably why it won’t do well. It just isn’t Transformers in any shape or form.

Circe clearly no longer looking her best.

In addition to stellar mise-en-scene and effects, the filmmakers keep the plot simple and dark (the screenplay was written by the talented Alex Garland, which is probably why it Is so gripping), and the narrative exciting and R-rated (no pandering to kids here, thankfully). Basically, Dredd and PSI Anderson, a psychic ‘mutant’ rookie, are trapped, with a suspect, in a locked-down megalith apartment complex controlled by a scarred, psychotic drug-addled Lena Headey: Circe (of Game of Thrones) gone quite mad. They are hunted by her scores of minions and must survive with limited ammunition. That’s pretty much it.

The South African film crew are to be commended here, as well as the largely UK-based digital effects team: the film is set almost entirely in the apartment complex, and every surface is rendered in a terrifically tactile, grubby and claustrophobic way, adding tremendous atmosphere to the production. In fact, it is impossible to see any difference between the physical sets and the digital, which is great. The film is thus kinda old-fashioned: sitting in the large, empty theatre (only single guys with huge popcorn) I felt like I was seeing a cool sci fi movie from the 80s or early 90s like Robocop, or Escape from New York. It’s not slick, overwhelmed by slick digital effects: it’s gritty; un-Hollywood. It is satisfying and unsqueamishly bloody but never exploitative and the gore is effectively stylised, graphic novel-style. The production also manages to evoke the feel of this gritty cult graphic novel (Dredd is no superhuman!), without losing anything of the human element (even though its basically a movie about shooting people). And in these days of vacuous teen testosterone action films by Michael Bay and Peter Berg thats just what one needs in a big-screen picture.

Casting is universally great, and again, simply done. There are characters (a few) and cannon fodder (baddies and civilians). Nothing more needed really. Karl Urban is monosyllabic, heroic and unsubtle. He just IS Judge Dredd: iconic, a cipher, a comic-book figure. Convincing stuff from the always-enjoyable and talented Urban who never lets ‘star personality’ overshadow the needs of the character. Dredd’s humour is so dry as to be almost undetectable. But its there, without bringing in that awful self-consciously funny-schtick Hollywood action movies seem to insist on. (Thank god there is no side-kick!) Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who could be ‘just the girl’, is, again, true to the comic and develops as a character just enough to make us care if she ‘passes’ Dredd’s assessment. Her abilities are, actually, also quite useful. Female characters are convincing (no Megan Fox/obligatory model-types here!) elsewhere in the film too: a Very welcome sight! Ma-Ma (Headey) is pretty scary (but could have been even scarier if she was less spaced-out, I think). Headey was born to be bad-ass (and stoned it appears).

I’ll see it again. Probably even buy it. I see cult favourite potential. Now I’m off to go kick something.

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One Comment
  1. konrad permalink

    Another awesome review!

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