This week, as part of their Midnight Movies programming block, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF, for the acronym-inclined) will premiere "Dredd," a 3D sci-fi movie written by Alex Garland, Danny Boyle's genre partner-in-crime (he wrote "The Beach," "Sunshine," and "28 Days Later" for the "Slumdog Millionaire" director). "Dredd" is a whacked-out, satirical, borderline psychedelic sci-fi movie about a pair of high tech law enforcers trapped inside a building that makes Nakatomi Plaza from "Die Hard" seem like the Disneyland Hotel.
The question is -- how will this futuristic thrill ride play away from the frenzied film festival midnight crowds? It will probably play well. But we wanted to look at it in more measured context. Feel free to (wait for it) judge on your own.
PRO: It's Nothing Like the 1995 Movie
It's easy to forget that this is the second big screen incarnation of "Judge Dredd," a character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra in the pages of British sci-fi magazine "2000 AD." In 1995 Disney brought the character to the big screen, under the overcooked direction of music video director Danny Cannon. Sylvester Stallone played Dredd -- and wore a gilded costume designed by Gianna Versace (complete with shiny codpiece). The film struggled to carry a needlessly convoluted plot involving mistaken identity, an arid apocalyptic wasteland, a killer robot, cannibals, clones, wacky sidekicks and Armand Assante.
The movie was carved down to try and accommodate a PG-13 rating (something the studio desperately wanted), but when it failed to garner the rating, Disney refused to put the rougher material back in. It was tonally wonky, structurally unsound, it was railed against by fans of the comic book, who took issue with the liberties (including Stallone removing his helmet) and by the comic book creators themselves (Wagner said "It had nothing to do with 'Judge Dredd'"). Additionally, it helped bankrupt financier Cinergi Pictures and made the character an unviable property for the better part of a decade. As far as big screen disasters go, they don't get much splashier than this…
CON: It's Nothing Like the 1995 Movie
… And yet, there's something oddly wonderful about the original "Judge Dredd." With its lavish cityscape (the imposingly titled MegaCity One, an urban sprawl that spans Washington, D.C. to Boston, one of the few things both films share) shamelessly ripped off from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," to the generally wonderful character design (both the hillbilly cannibals and killer robot are terrifically rendered), to the fact that, in the year 1995, it was one of the last big special effects movies that was optically composited, which gives it a handmade quality missing from almost every blockbuster produced afterwards. (Just compare this to "The Fifth Element," released two summers later, to see the jump in quality/technological aptitude.)
Given a Disney-sized budget, too, the original "Judge Dredd" had genuine sci-fi scope, as opposed to "Dredd's" claustrophobic single location setting, and a handful of thrilling set pieces, including a hover-jet chase and a fight atop the Statue of Liberty (which has been turned into a clone factory or something). Does "Judge Dredd" work? No. But as far as messes go, it could have been a lot uglier.
PRO: Karl Urban As Dredd
As Judge Dredd, the most hardened and exacting of all the futuristic Judges (futuristic lawgivers that act as judge, jury, and executioner), Karl Urban gives a commanding performance that's more than just him looking like he's made out of granite (although that's a big part of the performance too, and he pulls it off with aplomb). For a while Urban was stuck in bland and flavorless roles following his breakout in the latter two "Lord of the Rings" movies (things like "Doom" and "Pathfinder" – no, I don't remember them either), but in recent years he's picking up steam again, thanks mostly to his beyond charming turn as Bones in JJ Abrams' shimmery "Star Trek" reboot. While he plays the strong silent type in "Dredd," he lets enough humor and character shine through to make him marginally endearing. Also, when he says "I am the law," it actually comes across as threatening instead of laughable (as Stallone's delivery did).
PRO: Truly Inventive Use of 3D
Sure, "Prometheus" had some cool use of 3D (particularly those computerized maps and feeling like you were trapped inside the abortion pod), but "Dredd" really uses the format in some unique and interesting ways. They also do my favorite thing in 3D, which is when the aspect ratio actually becomes slightly more truncated (so that there's extra black at the top and bottom of the screen), so when sparks or blood or bit of debris get blown out, it exits the truncated frame and goes into the extra black space. It creates an additional sense of dimensionality and is also really, really ridiculously cool.
Also really cool: the drug of choice in "Dredd" is something called Slo-Mo, which makes you feel like things are moving super slowly. Life also takes on a kind of glittery luminescence, so when a character takes the drug in the tub, droplets of water turn into twinkly diamonds. (This was accomplished by using the Phantom camera -- a digital camera that shoots at 1,000 frames per second. It's a camera favored by everyone from Lars von Trier to the "Jackass" boys.) In short: "Dredd" is one of the few movies worth the 3D surcharge.
PRO: It's Excessively Violent
When people say, "Man, 'Expendables 2' was really violent," you kind of nod your head and say, "Okay." And then when you go and see "Expendables 2" and it's not that violent but instead is about as nasty as your typical direct-to-cable action movie (but way more boring and old-mannish). We're here to tell you, though, that "Dredd" is really, truly, I-don't-know-how-they-got-away-with-an-R-rating violent. Instead of being repulsive, though, it adds to the hyper-stylized comic book milieu, and makes for a way jazzier viewing. This is punctuated by an early car chase sequence where Dredd is in pursuit of some hopheads who have taken Slo-Mo. The van carrying the junkies hits a pedestrian, which registers as a red splat on the windshield. That's the moment Dredd decides to use lethal force and the moment when "Dredd" proves that it really means business.
CON: It's Kind of Repetitive
Like "The Raid: Redemption" before it, "Dredd" is set in a single apartment building over the course of a single day. Granted, the apartment building in "Dredd" is 200 stories tall and houses tens of thousands of hopeless MegaCity One citizens, but still… the similarities are there. As such, there are only a number of possibilities before things begin to feel slightly repetitive and videogame-y, with each level of the apartment building representing a different "level" to beat. It also adds a certain amount of drag to what is otherwise a rocket-powered 95 minute romp.