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The recent trend of remakes and reboots follow the same central theory: that a tonal overhaul and gloomier palette will somehow fix the mistakes of the past. The ‘reboot template’ – darker, grittier, edgier – has paid dividends for Batman, Spiderman, and the Alien series, showing strong returns (if not entirely critical success) on tired, stale franchises. But why so serious? Entires like Batman & Robin, Spiderman 3 and Alien: Resurrection didn’t suffer because the edge wasn’t honed, or the stakes were too low – they failed because of poor craftsmanship, shoddy scripting, and a cloned Sigourney Weaver. A trendy checklist is no substitute for good filmmaking. A darker, grittier take does not automatically make a recipe for success.
In the case of Dredd, the second theatrical incarnation of the maligned comic-book character, the ‘grit-n-gore’ approach has its strengths. Far gloomier than its mid-90s effort, the shine on Mega-City One is sweat-stained and jaundiced. Shot in South Africa, there’s palpable heat to the skylines, and immediacy to the poverty. Crime is rife and life is cheap, and in keeping with its irradiated post-apocalyptic setting, Judge Dredd doles out a nuclear kind of justice: skin is flayed, bullets puncture torsos, and eyes are gouged out in extreme slow motion. The violence is brutal, rendered in confronting 3D, and since the narrative amounts to essentially one extended action sequence (think Die Hard meets 2011s The Raid), there’s a lot of it – so much so that it ultimately proves numbing.
Plot and character are buried under a bombastic soundtrack, and while the closed narrative (involving an assault on a single 200 storey apartment complex) is a product of limited resources, it should be commended for doing something moderately different. Karl Urban’s stoic, perma-helmed take on Dredd is less didactic than Sylvester Stallone’s flag-waving patriot, but his uber-seriousness utterances, gravel voiced and grim, are unintentionally hilarious.
In fact, the film’s too-serious tone is often a source of humour, resulting from a misjudged sense of its own ridiculousness and a screenplay that refuses to offer anything more than a simple delineation of events. Being low budget doesn’t break the bank of creative ideas, and the major problem with the film is that it really isn’t very imaginative. There’s no mythology established around this future work, and because it’s rendered so close to existing sci-fi worlds, it has nothing interesting to offer. Judge Dredd exists in a narrative and social vacuum, where the rules aren’t clearly established, and just cause and consequence have no meaning.
For all its bravo and brutality, the film feels oddly reluctant to really cross the line in terms of taste. While a promise of hyper-kinetic ultra-violence is partially made good on, pushing the envelope further could have made a critical point of difference. While the recent remake of Total Recall eschewed the original’s extreme violence in place of a more realistic (relatively speaking) plot, Dredd feels lacking in extremes to make it truly memorable. For once, the grit and gloom of the ‘remake template’ feels appropriate for the source material, but once again, the craft beneath the rebooted veneer is conspicuous in its absence.