Note: This is an extended version of a review I wrote for the Portland Mercury. Go over there if you want the short version.
Scars vs. Helmets
The first thing you need to know about Dredd 3D is that Karl Urban never takes his helmet off for the entire movie. There’s a scene near the end where his space pants are hitched up so high into a future camel toe that I could practically draw a topographical map of his balls from memory, but his eyes and forehead retain their mystery.
The second thing you need to know is that all the bad guys have scars on their faces. Classic bad guy move.
The third thing you need to know about Dredd (note: these are not listed in order of importance) is that it’s shockingly good. Shocking not necessarily because it’s so incredibly good, but because the possibility of it being even slightly good seemed so remote. I mean, imagine someone saying they’d remade Battlefield Earth. That’s basically what Dredd 3D sounds like to most of us, who were only aware of the source material through Sly Stallone slurring “Aayyy yam the law!” in some half-remembered trailer from the nineties.
Even putting aside the history, usually when people tell you that a movie is “dumb but fun!” it means “it’s awful, but I’m a moron!” Dredd 3D is that rare exception, managing to actually smelt that elusive alloy of tongue-in-cheek camp and genuine visceral thrill where so many have burned their dicks off – Lockout, the Conan remake, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, almost every movie Luc Besson has produced in the 2000s, etc.
A good B-movie makes the grade with retard strength, not by acing math tests, and Dredd, to its credit, has a plot like a sledge hammer. Dredd, a man of few words, shockingly, has a hot shot new partner (a blonde Olivia Thirlby — mmm), a mutant mind-reader on her first day on the job, and together, she and Dredd have to escort their prisoner (Avon Barksdale from The Wire) out of a 200-story highrise controlled by a drug lord – Lena Headey, aka Cersei Lannister, a former prostitute named Mama who once “feminized a guy with her teeth” – after she’s put the whole place on lockdown and put a bounty on the judges’ heads, sending wave after wave of goofy, African warlord-esque thugs after them. UNNNGGGG BUT THEY RIPPED OFF THE RAID! Perhaps, but a genre-faithful movie like this is already derivative of 100 different things, at least they stole from something good.
Karl Urban’s self-aware rendition of KILL BAD GUY/CATCHPHRASE is Arnold for the modern age, with a backing track of over-the-top, Verhoeven-esque ultra violence. Everyone likes dead bad guys, usually where B-movies screw up is by over complicating things. A punk song has power chords, don’t try to stick a violin in the bridge. Lockout had 50 macguffins and confusing plot twists like the director thought he was making Memento. Dredd is new-brutalism simple, there are just enough tweaks to the expected tropes that it doesn’t get boring, and the posturing is subtle enough that you don’t feel like you’re watching a Spike TV sizzle reel. THIS WEEK ON MANSWERS, WHICH ENERGY DRINK MAKES PORN SKANKS THE HORNIEST?! (*chainsaw*) (*toilet flush*) (*bike horn*) (*Wilhelm scream*) That dose of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is crucial in a movie like this, because without it you’re basically watching fascist propaganda. Dredd’s winks are succinct and nicely subtle. Stupid people will enjoy them too because they probably won’t even notice. For instance, on Dredd’s way inside the highrise, there’s a vagrant sitting outside holding a sign that says “WILL DEBASE MYSELF FOR CREDITS.” Later on, he gets comically crushed to death. It’s the little things.
And perhaps most impressively, the writing is tight enough that nothing requires much suspension of disbelief. You can just sit back and enjoy the shooting and the drugs and the law helmets – with Dredd written by Brits, the judge’s helmet is basically the powdered wig of the future. When Dredd tells Ma over the highrise loudspeaker, “You are not the law. I am the law,” that simple tweak gives Stallone’s dopey, apropos-of-nothing catchphrase a believable context. When Dredd throws a bad guy down an elevator shaft, all he does is look down and say, “…Yup.”
Because that’s all the situation needs. In fact, that’s all this review needs. Dredd 3D: Yup.