This year's action cinema was a catalogue of antiquation, the tropes and banners of yesteryear dutifully dusted off and trotted out for heady reappraisal: Skyfall had James Bond trumpet old-fashioned, grassroots nationalism; Lockout rejigged John Carpenter by way of Dashiell Hammett (with Guy Pearce channeling Philip Marlowe); and The Expendables 2's action-star reunion special realized the dream of every eight-year-old circa 1992. Even Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning managed to bring a franchise nobody had thought about for 20 years back to life. If there remains a void to be filled on the action nostalgia front, it's in the shape of Paul Verhoeven, whose American films of the '80s and '90s represent the high-water mark for subversive Hollywood entertainments—and whose particular sensibility has yet to be replicated by this new class of high-trash imitators.
Pete Travis's Dredd comes the closest. A blunt, overtly ugly remake of the much-maligned Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd, the film rehashes the exaggeratedly dystopic vision of an American future imagined by RoboCop's New Detroit in what is here known as Mega-City One, which is in fact an only marginally CGI-augmented Johannesburg. Dredd's aspirations, like most of the year's backward-looking blockbusters, are toward replicating the look and feel of their chosen strain of action filmmaking, and to that end the film is largely successful; the tactile, splatter-heavy aesthetic itself is almost entirely in keeping with its principal source of inspiration. Its major point of visual departure from RoboCop is in its liberal use of slow-motion to illustrate the effects of a drug called (natch) "Slo-Mo"; this rather spectacular effect, shot on a new camera capable of capturing over 3,000 frames per second, is both the film's most striking feature and the point at which it fatally shows its hand.
I think it's safe to say that Verhoeven, however indulgent his tendencies as a visual stylist, wouldn't have employed super slow-mo trick shots had the technology been available in 1987—even if the look might have added some flair to a film like RoboCop. That these sequences are quite plainly Dredd's most enjoyably spectacular suggest that its aspirations to replicate RoboCop are exclusive to its surface pleasures. Dredd, despite major pretenses to the opposite effect, doesn't intend to mimic its inspiration's subversiveness, and subversiveness is precisely the quality which makes RoboCop a great film. Shorn of that decidedly intellectual dimension, Dredd becomes an exercise in romanticizing the style of action movies past without reflection, comment, or understanding. While Verhoeven—and, it should be said, many of his intelligent contemporaries—expounded quasi-militaristic conservatism with a knowing wink, Dredd fully embraces the former while not bothering with the latter, and in the process becomes perhaps the most earnestly fascistic action film in recent memory.
The effect certainly has its charms: The brute force of the thing is doubled-up without any satire or irony to leaven it, which makes this something of a heavy-hitter in that department. Dredd as a character—or as an abstraction, even, since he isn't conceived as three-dimensional—only really works in one of two ways: He's either a cartoon of state force and oppression whose outlandish vigor is meant to be terrifying (at which point he becomes a classic dystopian cautionary tale), or a po-faced Dirty Harry figure whose hardcore conservative bent is to be relished in earnest. The former vision might have played out like Starship Troopers in different hands, but the Dredd of Travis's film is more of the latter. This, of course, is almost exactly what the contemporary action scene calls for. If Dredd's attitude is decidedly less intellectually robust than the alternative, at least it's easy to comprehend and digest, and it makes for a fun bout of escapism that almost necessarily can't be taken seriously.
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Though Dredd deserves credit for integrating 3D technology in a more deliberate and novel way than many of its action-flick contemporaries (where it's often tacked-on in post to justify an inflated ticket price), the material itself seems to play better at home in 2D than it did on the big screen—perhaps a consequence of its B-movie roots and cult aspirations. It's a real shame, then, that this Blu-ray has put its proverbial eggs in the 3D basket, more or less botching the 2D presentation in the process. Though much of this 1080p transfer looks great (the colors are wonderfully saturated, for one thing, which you'd otherwise not notice due to the dimness of 3D projection), detail and sharpness are wildly inconsistent, with pronounced intrusions of unnatural grain and noise appearing and disappearing from one shot to the next. The film's jaundiced, sub-Domino palette is surely intentional, but it's harder to excuse the frequent lack of image clarity under the same banner of artistic intent, particularly when the 3D transfer never suffered from such discrepancies. The result is too-often distracting, unappealing, and just generally poor.
The sound, on the other hand, is practically perfect: Lionsgate have included not only a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (a rarity and a treat), but also what's called a "Neo-X" mix, which runs in 11.1 channels (!), which, frankly, is fucking absurd. My sound system maxes out at 5.1, so I can only attest to the (excellent) quality of the also-included 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, but if the dynamic range and clarity of this mix is any indication, the two better mixes are sure to be just as superb.
Lionsgate has opted for quantity over quality here, delivering a wide range of largely disposable featurettes and an ample serving of EPK fluff. "Dredd," an inane compilation of press-junket interview footage and recycled trailer clips, typifies the lack of effort put into most of this material. But the set's redeeming feature is a behind-the-scenes doc entitled "Day of Chaos," which offers a surprisingly in-depth look at the special effects deployed through the film.
Whether by design or otherwise, Dredd seems better-suited to a 2D home video presentation than to the 3D silver screen.