I don’t know that many people who, in the thrall of a weak September, dished out the $5, $10, $12, to see Dredd 3-D. This is curious, because I saw it the day that it came out, and I sang its praises til… wait, when am I writing this? I suppose the singing goes on. If you’ve seen Dredd 3-D, you probably had the same initial reaction I did – that this movie is much, much, much better than you ever thought it would be. But, having seen it three times in theaters, and roughly one billion times since the DVD release… there’s more to this movie. This is a truly great film. And since we’re in the season of handing out awards, and because movies like Dredd 3-D know from the moment of their inception that they will never sniff a nomination, it seems like a fine time to extol the virtues of what might be the best action movie made since the calendar flipped over from 1989.
If you’ve seen the film, I can probably spare you most of this song of praise. Of the few people that I know who have seen the film (most of them forced to see it by me), I have heard very few complaints. Of course, I have targeted the film’s audience amongst my own friends, and I’m not trying to win it the support of the Academy. But for a film to be so universally heralded amongst fans of a certain genre is actually fairly impressive in 2013, let alone for that very same film – a gritty B action film, by all accounts – to command a startling 77% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, is nothing short of incredible.
For the uninitiated, let’s start at the beginning. What is Dredd 3-D?
Well, it’s an exploration of a dystopian future that is the primary subject of the long-running Judge Dredd comic strip, an American hero who has been published almost exclusively in the United Kingdom. Dredd is a living metaphor, he is blind justice, the implacable and unrelenting arm of the law. He is fearless, he is formidable… he is the law. In a desolate future, North America is a nuclear wasteland. Outside of the boundaries of the incredible Megacity One, all is irradiated desolation. The Megacity runs from Boston to Washington DC, and contains twice as many people as lived in all of North America in 2012. Within the city limits, only one organization is still fighting to maintain order… the Judges of the Hall of Justice. They are judges, they are juries, and if necessary, they are executioners.
In Dredd 3-D, this is effectively all of the exposition we need. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the merciless reality of a law that is actively losing its struggle to serve and protect. Megacity One is falling apart day by day. But if Dredd himself is dismayed, he does not show it. Our opening sequence is a bloodbath of a high-speed chase through the streets of Megacity One that is given all the feel of a totally average day on the job. Innocent people die, vehicles are destroyed, drugs are consumed, and assault weapons are in abundance. So routine does the film make the bust feel, that it drew me into the world of Judge Dredd. Once I was there, and once the action started, the film never released its talons.
From there, Judge Dredd hauls rookie Judge-Candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out into the real world. As befits an assessment, Anderson takes the lead, committing herself and Dredd to respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees, one of the massive megastructures of Megacity One, a single tenement that houses over 75,000 people. Upon arrival, the Judges determine that the corpses – skinned and thrown off the balcony of Peach Trees’ level 200 – were executions, intended to send a message. From there, we’re off. The Judges fight their way up the megastructure and toward survival, battling against the savage druglord Ma-Ma (Lena Headley) and her minions. Most of the effects are practical, most of the dialogue is minimal, and while the story does have its emotional aspect, the action is the centerpiece of this film.
So, given that, why would I prop this film up as one of 2012’s best? Why would I, had I an Academy vote, have nominated Dredd 3-D for Best Picture (and probably Best Direction and Best Score, but probably nothing else). Because Dredd 3-D understands its genre, and its audience, and it attempts to be a perfect film within that framework. There is no pretension here. There are no regal accents, timeless proclamations of love, or elaborate Victorian costumes. That probably disqualifies Dredd from an award this year, but it shouldn’t. Because Dredd is a better film than Les Miserables (which, earnestly, has been done better more than once before). It is a better film than Lincoln (no one has ever claimed that they felt Dredd 3-D’s length)… because Dredd 3-D is a perfect action movie. If we do not ascribe any deeper motivations or requirements to a film than it be relentlessly entertaining and that it fill the basic requirements of its genre, there are few films ever made that will fill this criteria better.
Dredd 3-D sets up its scenario expertly, in a handful of scenes, and without much in the way of dialogue. Karl Urban has proved time and again that he is both versatile and talented (and criminally underrated, but that’s neither here nor there) but he is not asked to do much here. Dredd delivers his lines in the same tone of voice regardless of the situation. Where Dredd’s catch-phrases seemed campy and over-wrought in the 1995 adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone, Urban seems to have the better measure of his character. He is mercilessly deadpan, transforming one-liners into either tiny morsels of dry humour or vaguely ominous threats. Because Dredd’s persona is so unvarying, it never seems like he’s delivering a line. He is simply stating facts, as he observes them, and we are reacting in turn. Throughout the film, Dredd delivers roughly three facial expressions – a default look of grim severity, a look of significant disappointment (when a particular misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson) and one that I would not describe otherwise than grim fury (when a particularly more unfortunate misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson).
Dredd 3-D doesn’t demand much from its audience, but it outputs entertainment at an almost unvarying rate. The action scenes and set-pieces are actually remarkably varied (such as they can be) despite the confined nature of the film’s locations. As we watch, Dredd’s relentless implacability, and the sense that he literally cannot be stopped, actually become a fun part of the story. There is literally nothing to recommend the villains of the piece to us, despite a fairly layered performance by Lena Headley, who manages to be savage, determined, exhausted, and regretful basically all at once. This is one circumstance in which we very much want “the law” to prevail… and if what you hunger for is watching the law burn gang-bangers to death with incendiary ammunition, this film will grant you your fondest wish.
So, while Dredd 3-D may not have been nominated for any prestigious awards this season, please do it the favour of checking it out. It is a nearly-perfect action movie, and it is that way in spite of, not because of, its source material. Show it some love, and hope that the who’s-who of Hollywood realizes why this film is worth our time – and that they make many more films just like it.