“Dredd” (2012) Review

I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never read any of the Judge Dredd comics. In fact, the only prior experience I’ve had with the character is the 1995 Stallone film of the same name. I’ll admit that I don’t have the best gauge for determining how faithful Dredd is to its source material, but I assume the general absence of blue contact lenses, screaming the word “LAW”, and Rob Schneider is a step in the right direction.

While I never knew much about the Judge Dredd character per se, I was always fascinated by the implications surrounding him. His story takes place in a dystopian society overrun with everything from overpopulation to crime and the only things standing in the way of total chaos are a team of law enforcement officers called “Judges”. The Judges are interesting because they’re the last line of defense, but at the same time, they represent policing in its most efficient and dehumanizing form. The Judges’ responsibilities blend those of police, judge, jury, and executioner. No trials, no warrants, no peers. This makes Judge Dredd an extremely complex subject for a comicbook film. He’s a hero, but kind of a tyrant at the same time. Where the Stallone film fails is most of the narrative involves Dredd operating outside of this society and his conventional set of duties, so we hardly get to explore any of the contradictions and implications of the character.

The camera mugging also didn’t help.

Unfortunately, Dredd doesn’t really do this either. Dredd is kept in the confines of this city this time, which gives us a better glimpse of the society in which he operates, but the film overall doesn’t leave a lot of room for analysis. To sum up Dredd in one word: spectacle. Almost from the beginning, the action is brutal and persistent, the visual effects are exaggerated and (way too) drawn out, and tensions and emotions are always running high. It does a good job of getting the audience swept up right away, but at the cost of our critical faculties. There’s simply no time to really get a handle on this world and the complexities of the people supposedly protecting it. Most of the plot involves Dredd (Karl Urban) and his rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) trapped in an apartment building, constantly on the run from drug lords and violent criminals who won’t stop until blood is shed. And boy, is a lot of blood shed in this movie. While this gives Dredd a fun Die Hard kind of feel, it places the characters in a situation so intense, it denies the audience a chance to really think about what’s happening.

But to give credit where credit is due, Dredd is a very entertaining movie. Karl Urban does a great job as Judge Dredd. Aside from occasionally trying to emulate Christian Bale’s “bat-voice”, Urban plays the character extremely cold and no-nonsense. You really can’t imagine Dredd doing anything other than working. This is probably the closest we get as an audience to the inhumanity a character like Judge Dredd lends himself to, which is only perpetuated by the fact that we never see his face (supposedly the one unbreakable rule of the comics).

A rule the Stallone flick happens to break in the first 15 minutes.

As mentioned, the action scenes and visual effects are ongoing and exaggerated to a spectacular level, and they keep the audience engaged. The villains are quite cookie-cutter, but have an omnipresence that allows for a lot of suspense and they overall prove worthy adversaries for Dredd. The pacing is also very quick and smooth, with tragic and comedic moments timed very nicely. The 3D effects are kind of pointless, but I would recommend seeing the film in IMAX or UltraAVX if you get the chance because it is very enjoyable from a visual standpoint.

If you find yourself able to see through all of the bells and whistles, however, you’ll find that Dredd lacks substance. A film about a the future of our society really should make room for some kind of social commentary, but you get the feeling that Dredd is copping out and putting shiny objects in your face instead. Even if those shiny objects are really enjoyable to watch.

I give it 3/5.

“The Expendables 2” (2012) Review

The problem with the first Expendables movie is its premise is inconsistent with what we actually got. It’s funny, action-packed, and very entertaining overall, but it simply doesn’t feel big enough. In other words, it’s not “80s big”. The Expendables was intended to be a throwback to the action blockbusters of the mid-to-late 1980s that feature impossibly excessive action sequences with insane amounts of carnage, all topped off with a few one-liners to kill the tension. Yes they’re implausible and corny, but that’s what makes them so much fun to watch. You’d think a film that features Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and Bruce Willis in an oversimplified mercenary story that practically screams “high body count” would inevitably cause you to leave the cinema with your eyes bugged out and hair blown back due to the sheer epicness of what you just witnessed.

Bingo!

But no. Unfortunately, The Expendables feels more like a gritty modern-era action flick that takes itself way too seriously considering its purpose. It’s a good film, but not what we had expected. When The Expendables 2 was announced, it felt like the sequel that no one wanted, but got stuck with anyways. Then I saw it.

“Holy tap-dancing cows!” is a phrase that comes to mind. The Expendables 2 is a dramatic change in gears, to say the least. Everything it does well in its predecessor is simply made bigger and everything else is changed to ensure you couldn’t possibly take this movie seriously at all, but still love every second of it. The cast has grown (introducing other 80s stars Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and giving larger roles to Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger), the action is insane to the point of parody, the arsenal of weapons and vehicles is jaw-dropping, and the whole thing is caked in a thick layer of 80s action movie tropes. To name a few: the dialogue is cheesy and riddled with one-liners, everything explodes, the bad guys have the aim of drunk Stormtroopers while the heroes can fire directly into the sky and still mow down a row of enemies, and the word “subtlety” is nowhere to be found. The antagonist is actually named “Villain”, for crying out loud.

This was his concept art.

It’s what the first movie was supposed to be and succeeds across the board in this sense. For a movie that’s so undeniably 80s, however, the burning question is why release a film like this today? It’s one thing to pay tribute to a previous era of film history (such as Scorsese’s Hugo), but another to actually include the stars of that era. As I’ve already gone over in greater length in my review of Total Recall, the action movies of the mid-to-late 80s were supposed to showcase a tough America: one that could not only stand up to then-pressing threats such as the Soviet Union or the aftermath of Vietnam, but eliminate them completely. People like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were America’s “hard bodies”, who defined the American male and his seemingly non-existent limits of hypermasculine power. When the Cold War ended and Reagan left the White House, these films naturally stopped serving a purpose and went away while America’s onscreen saviours would go on to do movies like Batman & Robin and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

America!

The Expendables 2 is a fascinating film to read politically. While it carries over the stars and tropes of 80s action, it doesn’t carry over its themes. America’s Cold War heroes have fundamentally changed. They’ve aged considerably and are more aware of their vulnerabilities, but more importantly, they’re acting independent of the US Government. They’ve gone from saviours to a team of mercenaries-for-hire, who often find themselves clashing with America (here embodied by Willis, reprising his role as CIA Agent Church) or acting in defiance of it. There’s an especially telling scene where Stallone introduces the team as “Americans” and Jason Statham turns to him and says in his thickest, most Stathamiest accent, “Since when?” Even when the Expendables and the Government unite towards the end of the film, Stallone makes it crystal clear that his team is still calling the shots. The Expendables 2 is significant because it shows us that America’s hard bodies are still active, but find themselves in a world where they’re not wanted. As a result, they no longer seek to prove anything about America so much as they simply want to prove something to themselves. They’ve become (dare I say?) expendable.

I give the film 3.5/5.

“The Amazing Spider-man” (2012) Review

I don’t typically start reviews by bluntly stating my opinion, but I feel that in the case of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-man, no amount of flowery adjectives and complex rhetoric can accurately capture my feelings more than just flat-out stating “good God, this movie is a mess.”

I’m usually the first to defend a Spider-man movie. I’m a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. It’s action-packed and highly character driven without taking itself too seriously. And yes, I know that Raimi’s Spider-man films have gained infamy for their silly moments (or in the case of Spider-man 3, silly hours), but I still feel like they did the character justice and offer everything you would want from a comic book movie. Plus Bruce Campbell’s in them, which is icing on the cake.

Awesome, manly icing of badassery … and chin.

Even with all my admiration for the previous films, I find myself hard pressed to come up with anything in this movie that really works.  If I were to describe Amazing Spider-man in a word, it would be contrived. There’s a feeling of artificiality that plagues the whole film with plot developments and character attributes being forced on the audience simply because they move the story along. While the film does a good job building up to Spider-man (Andrew Garfield), his ultimate transition to superhero is abrupt and awkward. Everyone knows by now that it’s the murder of Uncle Ben that drives Peter Parker to a life of crimefighting, which initially manifests itself in donning a mask and hunting the killer, but the whole superhero angle comes off as an obligatory afterthought. The journey from Peter to Spider-man simply feels like going through the motions. He adopts this attitude of “this is what superheros do, so I guess I have to do it too.” There’s one especially frustrating scene where he’s sitting on the bleachers with his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and basically shrugs and goes “I suppose I have to go protect innocent people now.” It could not be any more disingenuous and fake.

Speaking of fake, I need to talk about the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) for a moment. He’s your stereotypical “villain with a God complex” and though a bit dull and predictable, he proves to be a competent adversary for Spidey. However, he looks pretty silly. It’s to the point that his character design and CGI effects actually undermine his ability to pose a threat. I know that the Spider-man films aren’t exactly held in high regard when it comes to designing their antagonists, but after a Green Goblin that looks like a Power Ranger and a Venom that looks like Topher Grace, you think they would’ve learned by now. It’s hard to take a villain seriously when he looks like the goofy cousin of  Toad from the Super Mario Bros. movie.

“Duuuuuuuuuuuuuhhh!”

I also found the relationship between Peter and Gwen to be very forced and surreal. It’s as if the filmmakers took for granted the audience’s expectations that Peter and Gwen would get together and therefore put no thought into the development of their relationship. The movie establishes that Peter has the hots for Gwen and Gwen at the very least respects Peter, but when he finally asks her out, it’s awkward and comes completely out of left field, and she practically leaps at the chance to date him despite no previous indication that she had any interest. Their dynamic as a couple is anything but natural. One minute Gwen’s horrified by Peter’s wounds from a run in with the Lizard and the next, they’re joking around and making out. One minute they’re having a serious talk about the implications of being a superhero then out of nowhere, Peter blurts out, “I like kissing you.” Their whole relationship plays out like a scene from The Room, but without the humour of  knowing they genuinely tried to get an emotional response from the audience.

“I should fight crime. Anyway, how is your sex life?”

What disappointed me the most about Amazing Spider-man, however, is that it seems like they kind of missed the point of the titular character. At best, Spider-man is inconsistent. At worst, he’s an insufferable little snot. One thing that I always appreciated about Raimi’s films is Peter’s inherent goodness and selflessness. His personal life suffers dramatically because of his higher calling as a superhero and he struggles with the temptation to just do as he pleases, but that famous theme of great responsibility accompanying great power remains consistent throughout the whole trilogy. This is who Spider-man is supposed to be. People often make fun of Maguire for portraying Spidey as a meek little crybaby, but at least he captures the moral essence of the character.

Besides, only real men cry tears.

They try to establish the Peter of this film in a similar way by showing him sticking up for his bullied peers at the beginning of the film. Even when he gets the ever-loving tar kicked out of him, he doesn’t shy away from doing the right thing and the audiences knows this is a superhero in the making. Then it just disappears. Like any Spider-man origin story, when Peter first gets his powers, he gets a little corrupted and tries to capitalize on his newly-acquired abilities. Then dear Uncle Ben is killed by a thief that Peter could’ve easily apprehended earlier, but refused because he was too proud. In most cases, Peter is devastatingly humbled by this realization and through his own guilt, he learns of his responsibility to protect the innocent even if it means sacrificing his own pleasure.

This doesn’t happen in Amazing Spider-man. Peter refuses to stop a convenience store robbery, which results in Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) getting killed when he attempts to stop the thief, but the way in which the scene plays out ends up crippling Peter’s ability to develop properly into Spider-man. In most other Spidey origin stories, Peter is not present when Uncle Ben is killed and he flies into a vengeful rage when he finds out. It’s only when he finally tracks down the criminal that Peter realizes the murder was indirectly his own fault and he experiences the emotions necessary to put him on the path towards becoming a superhero. In Amazing Spider-man, Peter witnesses the murder and his immediate desire for revenge overpowers those essential feelings of remorse and accountability. To make matters worse (MINOR SPOILER) Peter never ends up finding Ben’s killer, so there’s no closure and he can’t move on. As mentioned earlier, he ends up becoming Spider-man kind of inadvertently and once he takes up the superhero mantle, he’s still driven largely by personal reasons rather than a responsibility for the safety of his fellow man. Sure, he saves the occasional innocent bystander if it’s convenient for the plot, but this Spider-man is not about protecting the innocent. He’s just out to take care of his own problems so he can feel better. Because he’s driven by selfish reasons, Spidey becomes a selfish character, who seemingly puts more people in danger than out. For example, a key reason why Spider-man keeps his identity secret is so he can protect his loved ones from his enemies. It’s noble, it’s selfless, and it’s what a superhero would do. In this movie, however, Spider-man carelessly reveals his identity to pretty much everyone under the sun, completely unaware of the dangerous burden he’s placed on them. He only hides behind a mask to protect himself because after all, Spider-man only exists in this movie so that Peter Parker can sleep better at night.

Sweet dreams, jerk!

You’re probably wondering if there’s anything I actually enjoyed about this movie. There are a few things. I really liked the action scenes. They’re well-filmed and the choreography is remarkable. With the exception of the unholy offspring of the Rancor and Barney the Dinosaur that is the Lizard, I thought the visual effects were stunning as well. The acting is quite decent. I found Andrew Garfield to be pretty awkward at times, but everyone else does a good job. I especially commend Martin Sheen and Denis Leary for their portrayals of Uncle Ben and Captain Stacy respectively. Both characters are far more fleshed out than their previous film incarnations – most notably Ben, who died in Raimi’s trilogy before my Yogen Fruz melted – and both actors rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to compensate for all the film’s weaknesses.

The Amazing Spider-man misses its mark on so many levels. It’s like they were so desperate to get from point A to B, they didn’t put any thought into what happens in between. So much of what goes on in this film feels shoehorned in and the pacing leaves much to be desired. The film can’t decide how to handle its titular character and ends up making him a self-centered turd, who only lifts a finger for others when the script calls for it. The supporting cast, while enjoyable, are ultimately reduced to a bunch of Yes Men, who exist to keep reminding the audience that Spider-man is in fact the good guy because the film does such a poor job of showing us. When a superhero movie has to resort to this, it has failed.

I give it 2.5/5.