“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.