Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cops on patrol: End of Watch and Dredd (and the Stallone version, too)

So, apparently, Dredd kind of got creamed in the USA this weekend, having the lousy luck to open opposite End of Watch (which hits a lot of the same sort of "lone cops against the cartel" buttons, especially in the last act, without requiring the audience to hear the phrase "Mega-City One") and Trouble with the Curve, starring Clint Eastwood, whose Dirty Harry contributed a lot of DNA to the original Dredd character. I don't necessarily know that a different weekend might have worked better, but I'm hoping that what I've heard about the film basically being profitable even before US rights were sold is true and it does well enough internationally to merit a sequel. I liked it.

It was somewhat weird to see it on back-to-back days with End of Watch, though. Seeing the two movies that are pretty similar in certain ways - the "ambush" section of End of Watch feels a lot like Dredd at certain points, right down to its atrium staging, and there's a thread through both about how even honest cops can be frightening when left unchecked - but which have markedly different feels created a strange feeling of déjà vu as well as serving as a reminder that it's not the material, but what you do with it, that's important.

Take, for instance, Dredd and the previous attempt to make that material into a movie, 1995's Judge Dredd. At nearly every chance it has, the makers of the new movie makes the opposite decision than was made seventeen years ago, and the interesting thing to realize is that while they've made a much better movie, that doesn't necessarily mean that the old decisions were wrong. Judge Dredd, in a lot of ways, pulled a lot more of the comic's imagery, backstory and mythology in, while Dredd dug pretty deep for the conceptual underpinnings but put an entirely new surface on it. The first movie tried to make Joe Dredd a main character with a typical arc, while the new one in many ways makes Cassandra Anderson the protagonist, while what Dredd goes through is much more subtle.

The thing is, give the first movie a better script, and those aren't bad choices. The gaudy set design, operatic scale of the story, and occasional bits of dark humor could have been pushed in a more satirical direction, and as much as co-creator John Wagner felt that this movie missed the point of the character by focusing on the dynastic ideas as opposed to how Dredd is, at heart, a beat cop, he wrote a lot of the stories that the movie pulls from. And fans love the Dredd epics which ofen leave satire in second position for an adventure that gets bigger with each new six-page chapter. Some of them, like the one that took center stage when I started getting 2000 AD at The Million Year Picnic a few years ago, actually take advantage of how Dredd has been aging in real time for the past thirty-five years and slowly growing as a character to the point where he can advocate for changes to the law rather than follow it blindly.

As I mention in the review, the new Dredd goes more for the character as a personification of The Law and a way to bring us into stories of "The Meg". I do think that it gets pretty smart about that as it goes on, though. The fascism that is inherent in the concept isn't really hidden - Cassandra's arc is basically that she has to toughen up, follow the rules even when she finds things like summary executions distasteful, because that's what stands between the city and chaos. Still, as Dredd confronts the corrupt judges, the comparison between them and Anderson becomes meaningful to Dredd: As much as Anderson is less qualified to be a judge in most ways that can be measured, the fact that she cares about people individually may be more valuable than the competence that the corrupt judges who show up at Ma-Ma's call show. They're capable and pragmatic, but too much so. Not having Dredd's true-believer devotion to The Law as an absolute part of their make-up, they can be bought. Anderson, for all her initial flaws as a street judge, is going to do the right thing, and at the end of the movie, Dredd can make allowances for that.

Maybe that's not deep, but it's in there solidly enough that it gets through, while Judge Dredd had to state its values rather bluntly and it still doesn't resonate the way Dredd does.

Or End of Watch, for that matter. Its message is even simpler - cops are human and can get in over their heads - but both let their ideas permeate the story rather than get called out, making for quite satisfying experiences.

End of Watch

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 September 2012 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, DCP)

At the start, the main character of End of Watch expresses a very black-and-white opinion of the police and their role in society, and the way that the filmmakers acknowledge law enforcement officers toward the end of the credit roll certainly suggests that they share this view of cops as heroes. And yet, it never feels dishonest or like propaganda, but plays as a strong character piece that makes its simplicity a strength.

The uniformed police officer who makes the speech at the start is Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ex-marine whose ambition has him taking a filmmaking class as a humanities elective as he studies pre-law during his off-hours. It also has him and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) very aggressive on patrol, pushing into situations that other officers would avoid or engage with more caution. But while Zavala and his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) await the birth of their first child and Taylor starts to get serious with his new girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick), their actions start to attract attention of malefactors well above local gangster "Big Evil" (Maurice Compte).

Though there's no question that Taylor is the film's viewpoint character - early on, the whole thing is implied to be his classroom project, and while there are scenes without him, they are dropped in from elsewhere rather than the picture leaving him behind - it's impressive how well-defined the other characters are with just a few relatively broad strokes. Take America Ferrera and Cody Horn, for instance, as the team that frequently serves as their backup; we get how much a pair of female partners maybe has to act tougher than the men to thrive in this job. Or David Harbour as a cop turned defensive and cynical (but also able to make a surprising second side to his character completely believable later on). Or Frank Grillo as their sergeant, who can officially push toward the straight-and-narrow while unofficially seeming to encourage the sorts of excess that give cops a bad name. Or Cle Sloan as a prideful banger, or Diamonique as a vicious but cunning lady gangster, or... Well, it's a strong, deep ensemble where almost every character feels like a complete creation, even if he or she only appears for a couple of minutes. Nobody is slacking off.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 September 2012 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, 3D RPX)

While a fair amount of time has been spent assuring fans that Dredd is a more faithful adaptation of the strip appearing in 2000 AD than another movie from almost twenty years ago, that understates the case a bit: This movie is actually closer to the ideas behind the franchise than the strip itself, with some actual thought beneath its plentiful violence.

Near the turn of the twenty-second century, much of America is a barren wasteland, and Mega-City One stretches down the east coast from Boston to Washington. It's too small a place for eight hundred million people, so crime is rampant, and the justice system has been streamlined to fit on a motorcycle, so that the arresting officer is also a judge and, as need be, executioner. Judge Joe Dredd (Karl Urban) is one of the city's best,and today he's been assigned to evaluate rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a borderline graduate from the Academy with psychic abilities that the Chief Judge hopes will make her a valuable asset. Their first call takes them to a triple homicide in the Peach Trees city-block (an entire blighted city packed into one skyscraper), which is controlled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and the distribution center for all the Slo-Mo (a drug which causes people to experience time at 1% of normal speed) in the sector - and when Dredd and Anderson arrest one of her lieutenants (Warrick Grier), she seals the block and orders the judges killed.

Budget probably played a large role in how the producers chose to adapt Dredd this time around; too expensive, and you need an American studio behind it, and they'll demand it be watered down to a PG-13 and softening the characterization , asking to make Dredd less fascist and more heroic and missing the point. So instead of presenting Mega-City One as it is in the comics, with bright colors, gaudy designs, and a different future-shocking oddity around every corner, the filmmakers go for a gritty, impoverished realism that makes the judges a natural response to the world in a way that does not always come across in six-page bursts of sci-fi action and broad satire. Every element looks like an extrapolation of the present, from the city's brutalist geometry to the SWAT-inspired uniform and Dredd's dinged-up helmet. As much as Mega-City One has always been a world built to supply Dredd with challenges, it's more of a nightmare here, without the fanciful touches that make the comic as much cheeky black comedy as gritty action.

Full review at EFC.

Judge Dredd

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2012 in Jay's Living Room (why not?, Blu-ray)

So, understand this: Judge Dredd isn't a very good movie. Sylvester Stallone, who seemed like obvious casting at the time, is pretty awful, not helped at all by a script that has him spouting a lame catchphrase and attached to an annoying sidekick. There's a lot of Rob Schneider as that sidekick, while Armand Assante chows down on every bit of scenery he can find as the villain. The script by William Wisher and Steven E. de Souza pretty much defangs the satirical elements of the property, replacing them with easily digestible comedy.

And yet, I've got to admit, there are times when I would kind of like the lift Karl Urban's Dredd and Olivia Thirlby's Cassandra Anderson out of the newer movie and place them in this one's world. From the very start, it's pretty clearly the Mega-City One I know from 2000 AD made real, and there's something very cool about how the artifice comes across when translating the comic book imagery directly to screen. Heck, I love the clunky-but-tactile Hammerstein that shows up even though I'm not a particular fan of the ABC Warriors. It's a gaudy, very 1990s feel, with the filmmakers trying to bring the comic directly to the screen and often looking silly but also feeling like they're doing very well with limited materials.

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