10 Reasons Why Dredd Is The Best Comic Book Movie Of 2012 You Didn't See
It was tough to be a comic book movie in 2012 if your name wasn't Batman or The Avengers. Even poor Spider-Man didn't fare well in comparison. Because while The Avengers worldwide box office was over 1.5 billion, and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises was just over 1 billion, and even Spidey cracked an impressive 756 million, poor Dredd with its R-rating made a paltry 37 million (almost). But were The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man really that much better than Dredd? The answer is a resounding no.
While I saw and really liked all three of the above mentioned films (and really loved The Avengers), there's only one way in which Dredd can't go up against them, pound for pound, and that is because of its well-deserved R-Rating. Ignoring the fact that I'm not sure The Dark Knight Rises should only be PG-13, all of these movies except Dredd received said rating. A PG-13 greatly expands your potential audience. It is, of course, why movies (comic book and otherwise) love to aim for that sweet spot (and how sad for all of us well over that age). I have to assume this speaks volumes about who we continue to think comic book-based movies are for -- namely, kids. Which is ironic considering much of the comic book industry doesn't seem concerned with courting kids, and sometimes even openly admits it mostly care about males 18 - 34.
But there are plenty of other factors you can blame Dredd's box office performance on: how much money the film had to market itself, when the film came out (fall, not summer), and even the marketing strategy. I remember being interested in Dredd, but only vaguely, and ultimately I didn't see it in the theater. I did see The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, but why wasn't Dredd on my must see list? I just don't know. But after having seen it, I can tell you that it deserved my attention, and here's why.
1. IT'S SMART
As much as I love comic book movies, even I have to admit that sometimes they're not so smart when the time comes for heroes to save the day. Even my beloved Avengers movie has a bit of an eye-rollingly convenient moments at the end (you're just having so much fun you don't care), but Dredd has none of this. Dredd is smart from beginning to end. Everything is well set up and makes sense throughout. Additionally, there's a clever device partway through the film that traps characters in one location, which is both brilliant from a cost standpoint, and ups the stakes significantly for everyone involved.
2. IT'S UNCONVENTIONAL
Another common trait in action films, comic book-based or otherwise, is the "tough as nails hero with a heart of a gold." Undoubtedly, before we can make it to the end of our action film we will have been force-fed some cliche backstory about how our badass hero lost his wife and child thanks to villain X, or tragic accident Y, etc. While Dredd has a tough as nails hero that is a decided good guy at its center, we never have to endure that cliche backstory. In fact, there's an actual groan-inducing moment early on when you think they're going to do it, they even start to go there, and then... they don't. They just cut it off. It's fantastic. I have never been more relieved than when we cut away from that "cue the music cheesefest." For some I suppose this might be a problem; you never do really find out what Judge Dredd's deal is. However, I argue you don't need it for the film to work, or to care about your central hero, and I think it's a bold and unconventional choice.
3. IT'S UNCONVENTIONAL
Yeah, I know I already said it, but it deserves two mentions. You know another thing you expect to see in an action film, especially when you have a hunky male lead? You expect to see his face. But you NEVER see Karl Urban without the oppressive Judge Dredd helmet and that feels shockingly right. Judge Dredd is not the kind of guy who takes off his helmet all willy-nilly. He's a badass, but he's just a normal guy and he needs all the fancy toys that his futuristic society can provide him, including a helmet that keeps him from getting dead immediately. I was shocked that he never takes it off, not even at the end. So again, bold and unconventional. Ballsy.
4. IT'S GOT STRONG BUT UNDERSTATED WORLD BUILDING
A lot of action movies set in a future dystopia dwell far too much on the world building or don't sufficiently address it at all. Judge Dredd's world is unarguably a dark one, but there are effortless things that suggest what kind of future we're in. The kind of future where there's a ton of technological advancement but people are still living in high rise slums with crappy elevators and bad lighting. While Judges have an arsenal of awesome weapons and a hacker character has cool if disturbing mechanical eyes, kids are still riding beat up skateboards and people drive whatever they can afford. All the thought is there, nice and understated. We're not here for the fancy toys (though they're fun), we're here to see some heroes gut it out in a world where the odds are stacked against them.
5. IT'S GOT A FANTASTIC FEMALE LEAD
Without any disrespect meant to the obviously gorgeous (and extremely talented) Olivia Thirlby, she's not the female lead you expect in an action movie like this. She's never out of uniform; it's never torn in "sexy and convenient" ways. Her lack of helmet makes utter sense and is only used as a negative for her, not a chance for her to toss her perfect mane of hair around. And she moves, fights, looks, and acts like the talented but totally inexperienced rookie judge she is. It's a wonderful performance and character -- both of which could have easily gone horribly off the rails in so many ways, but don't thanks to smart choices made across the board. So many action movies would be happy to cast the lady part with a too sexy actress, unbelievable as an "average woman;" or would have given her a different costume than Dredd's, one more about titillation than function; or would have cast her as the damsel in distress; or worst of all -- all of the above. Not Dredd. Judge Anderson (Thirlby) is physically believable in her role. She wears a costume identical to Dredd (sans the Helmet for which there's a logical in-story reason), and when this rookie gets captured she rescues herself and then helps to save Dredd for good measure.
There are probably even more reasons, but I just realized I'm basically doing a list inside a freaking list and since this isn't an outline for a novel, we should probably move on!
The choice to feature a Judge Dredd that we never really get to know beyond his professional demeanor (which is not to say there isn't good character development) alongside a rookie trying to make the grade draws wonderful contrasts throughout the film. She's naive and inexperienced but optimistic about the good in people and the world; Dredd has seen it all, can handle it all, and can't believe there's anything good left anywhere... although if he really believed that, I doubt he'd show up for work. See! Nice, subtle contrasts and character development. Wonderful.
6. IT'S GOT LENA HEADEY
If you watch Game of Thrones (or if you watched Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles) you know Headey is an absolute badass, especially when it comes to playing complicated women. Here she's the villain, Ma-Ma, and while her villainy has none of the nuance and subtlety of her Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones -- Ma-Ma comes with a brutal facial scar, the figure of a wasted drug addict, and a reluctance to bathe or brush her hair -- it's still a fantastic performance. She's every bit the commanding drug lord worthy of taking down both our heroes (and whoever else happens to get in her way), and without ever once using her sex appeal. Because let's face it, when was the last time you saw an action movie with a villainess that didn't at some point try to use her sex appeal for something. Yeah, just about never. Headey's Ma-Ma wouldn't dream of using whatever sex appeal she may have, and with her lack of bathing and hair brushing she's not even trying to seduce the audience. It's great.
7. IT HAS SOME FLASHY EFFECTS, BUT THEY ALL MAKE SENSE
In the opening scene I rolled my eyes and groaned because only a few minutes into the movie we got one of those Matrix-y "Zach Snyder Specials" where everything stops and slows down. I'm sure the technique has a name, but I'm no filmmaker. You all know what I'm talking about, right? Anyway, if I never see another one of those shots in my life it will be too soon. HOWEVER, there is an in-story reason for this shot choice in Dredd and I nearly wept with joy when I realized that director Pete Travis was only going to use that effect to illustrate a very specific effect of the drug Ma-Ma is producing. A drug that makes the user feel as if time is slowing down. See how that makes sense?! Filmmakers everywhere, please take note -- stop using this just because you think it looks cool. Use it for an in-story reason and you will do yourself and all your viewers a huge favor.
8. IT'S GOT VIOLENCE, VIOLENCE, AND MORE VIOLENCE
Dredd is unapologetically, unrelentingly dark. It's an oppressive and depressing world Judge Dredd lives in, and the film pulls no punches -- quite literally. You will be aware of the necessary R-rating in the first scene when an innocent bystander is creamed by a car and the camera doesn't even flinch. The aforementioned in-story reason for time slowing down also makes some of the violence incredibly gory. Like seriously, you have to look away because "oh my god that bullet just went through that guy's cheek and they slowed it down so I could see it FOREVER." Yeah, that kinda violent. There is also some violent sex and the repeated suggestion of rape/gang rape, but both are only in small flashes and not drawn out the way the non-sexual violence is. It is not a movie for the faint of heart in any way, shape, or form.
9. IT'S RATED R
I like plenty of non-R-rated things -- both in comics and out. In fact, a huge part of what I thought worked for The Avengers was that it felt as much like a great comedy as it did an action movie. And that comedy felt like good, clean, fun. Similarly The Amazing Spider-Man had a sense of humor and sweetness to it that I really enjoyed. But that doesn't mean sometimes I don't want to get down and dirty with some R-rated action movie adult themes, adult content, nudity, violence, and all the rest. It frustrates me that movies, in order to make the most possible money, frequently have to water down their concepts and executions into pale imitations of what they should be. A PG-13 Judge Dredd movie would be ridiculous. It would be working against itself at every turn. So good for this movie, for embracing it's R-ness and saying "we don't even want that giant PG-13 audience." I mean, yes, it hurt the film when it came to the box office, and maybe there won't be a Dredd 2 in our future because of those weak numbers, but it's a better movie for making that choice. And I'm all for better movies. You?
10. IT'S GOT AN ALEX GARLAND SCREENPLAY
I was impressed with the script and story from go (see above re: Smart and Unconventional) and it was only during the end credits that I saw Alex Garland credited as the screenwriter and I slapped my hand on my head and said, "Of course this was good!" Alex Garland, he of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. He of Never Let Me Go. Sure, I haven't loved every single movie Garland's written, but I've loved a bunch of them (and one of them is arguably my favorite movie of all time). Even the ones I didn't adore have all been smart and well considered. They don't wallow in cliche, and Garland also has a knack for writing complicated and interesting women. Of course this was good.
And I just wish everyone (including myself) had realized it while Dredd was in theaters. We can't go back in time and change the box office for this sadly-missed comic book movie, but we can talk to our friends about it and make sure everyone rents it, or pay-per-views-it, whatever your poison, so it can stand the test of time as a really great example of an R-rated comic book movie. If you don't mind your comic book movies dark and you can get Stallone's "I AM the LAW!" out of your head long enough, this is absolutely worth a watch. It's not going to win any major awards, but as an action movie and a comic book based movie, it deserves to be up there with the other heavy hitters of 2012.
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