Dredd 3D (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Ever since Dredd 3D premiered at the July San Diego Comic Con, surprisingly positive word of mouth has been spreading through the internet faster than SLO-MO inhalers across Mega-City One, something that is very shocking because action films released in September tend to be pretty lousy. Infinitely better than it has any right to be, Dredd 3D is a lean and mean superhero exercise that is both thoughtfully constructed by its director, Peter Travis, and also a thoughtful experience on the viewers part, something this comic book fan certainly didn’t expect. Travis seems to understand that many may not be so welcoming of Judge Dredd, especially after what Sylvester Stallone did to the character back in 1995. Well, you can all breathe a sigh of relief because there is no Rob Schneider here. While Dredd 3D didn’t blow me away like I hoped it would, I still found the film to be a relentlessly entertaining thrill ride that packs some unique action sequences, dazzling slow-motion shots that look fantastic in 3D, and a gritty aesthetic that resembles both 28 Days Later and District 9. And then there is Karl Urban as the man himself, Judge Dredd, a closed-book badass who is insanely likable even if we never do get to see his face or learn much of anything about him. I should also add that he certainly has a way with one-liners.
Set in the grimy future, America is now an irradiated wasteland known as the Cursed Earth. On the east coast, there exists a massive walled city known as Mega-City One, a violent metropolis that is ravaged by crime and an addictive new drug called SLO-MO, which slows the users perception of reality to 1% its normal speed. The only order in the chaos are Judges of the Hall of Justice, urban cops who posses the authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner. The nastiest and toughest of all the Judges is Dredd (Played by Karl Urban), who is asked by the Chief Judge (Played by Rakie Ayola) to train rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Played by Olivia Thirlby). While Anderson failed her examination by three points, she was still allowed to join the force due to her powerful psychic abilities that are a result of genetic mutation. Dredd reluctantly agrees to take the rookie under his wing and the two respond to an atrocious murder in a massive housing block called Peach Trees, a place where Judges rarely go. While investigating the murders, Dredd and Anderson discover that the massive slum is controlled by sadistic drug lord Ma-Ma (Played by Lena Headey) and her clan of killers. After Dredd and Anderson arrest one of Ma-Ma’s high-ranking clan members, the gang overtakes the slum’s security center and locks the two Judges inside the 200-storey structure. With ammo low and nowhere to hide, Ma-Ma unleashes a relentless army of killers who will stop at nothing to kill Dredd and Anderson.
Shockingly brutal and the very definition of tough, Dredd 3D never allows the action to get too out of hand or take over the film completely. There are a number of hard-hitting action scenes that do satisfy but the brooding mood in between these sequences is what really keeps us on our toes. Travis smartly builds suspense around the fact that our protagonists have their backs against the wall and ammo is scarce. Dredd and Anderson have to constantly pause to fully assess the situation that they find themselves in and devise a plan to quietly slip by the endless waves of trigger-happy gangsters who wish to make Ma-Ma proud. Some may deem that disappointing or, dare I say, boring, but it does make for a number of tense sequences that will have you chewing on your fingernails. Dredd 3D also finds a bit of relevancy in the inclusion of SLO-MO, the drug that is rapidly spreading through Mega-City One like cancer. Any time the drug or its terrifying side effects are mentioned, you can’t help but think of all the new drugs that have been making their way into the hands of America’s youth today (bath salts, 2C-I). Don’t worry, Dredd 3D isn’t a full on anti-drug commercial with an inflated budget, but it does get you thinking and there is nothing wrong with that.
Then we have Karl Urban’s awesomely gruff Dredd, who conceals his mug behind that mean-looking helmet and allows his mouth to droop into a scruffy frown. Dredd is incredibly fascinating even if we virtually know nothing about him. At one point, Anderson uses her psychic abilities to discover that Dredd is hiding some pain and anger underneath that cool helmet but we never learn what that pain and anger stems from. Dredd can also be darkly hilarious, especially when a couple of young wannabe thugs decide they are going to confront him. Anderson certainly has her fair share of emotional baggage and she ends up with even more as she trains to be a full on Judge. As the situations she faces become more and more disturbing, doubt begins to set in. Then there is Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma, one of the most fun comic book movie villains I’ve seen in quite a while. She nearly steals the show with her junkie slump, her hacked hair, her rotten teeth, and scarred face. She is eerily calm as she aims a Gatling gun at Dredd and mows down countless innocent bystanders. She is truly a villain that you want to see Dredd confront and execute. Believe me.
At a slim and trim ninety minutes, there is never a dull moment in Dredd 3D. There is countless glimmering slow motion shots that find bullets barreling through faces as blood and brain bits come dancing out of the screen at us. One scene finds the camera acting as the POV of one of Ma-Ma’s victims as they tumble 200-stories to their death. If you suffer from acrophobia, you may want to close your eyes during that particular scene. There is one sequence that finds Anderson entering the mind of one of Ma-Ma’s thugs and I will warn you, it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. The film does seem to run out of steam at the end, especially during the final showdown between Ma-Ma and Dredd. You fully expect there to be plenty of fireworks but it is a fairly calm confrontation that leaves the viewer wanting a little more. You’d at least expect Ma-Ma to put up more of a fight, especially since she is so sadistic through the other eighty minutes of the film. Still, Dredd 3D makes good use of its R-rating and it certainly doesn’t hesitate to deliver on all the blood, guts, and gore you can handle. The film also had a pretty effective score; a thumping industrial beat from Paul Leonard-Morgan that uses filthy synths to compliment the decaying steel of Peach Trees. With Mega-City One being such a sprawling metropolis, I firmly believe that we haven’t seen the last of Urban’s Dredd. There is plenty more to explore with this character and I hope that he gets a follow up. Overall, if you’re sick of the Resident Evil franchise and looking for some edgy action to shake you out of your early fall ennui, Dredd 3D will do the trick.
Batman Forever (1995)
by Steve Habrat
After Tim Burton took Batman to the darkest depths of evil’s soul in 1992’s Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to make the Batman franchise friendlier to families all over America (No death to children here!). With Burton out of the director’s chair and wearing the producer’s hat, Joel Schumacher steps in to brighten the mood, yanking the brooding Batman out of the shadows and tossing him head first into a world of neon lights and rubber nipples on the Batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, the third installment in the franchise, was without question the grandest Batman film to date. It sprints all over this art deco Gotham City that looks more like a nightclub than an actual metropolis. Some of the dark tones of the original two films remain loosely in tact and newcomer Val Kilmer, who steps in for Michael Keaton, refuses to quit brooding as Bruce Wayne, but the film welcomes in two campy villains, an annoying sidekick, and a homoerotic feel that turns Batman and his antagonists into glam rock drag queens with no purpose or direction. Completely reversing the plot to create a darker Batman, Schumacher takes things back to the campy 60’s television series that starred Adam West as a much more cartoonish version of the Dark Knight and in the process, he horrifies Batfans everywhere.
Batman Forever begins with the dreaded Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Played by Tommy Lee Jones), the former do-gooder D.A. of Gotham City, terrorizing the good citizens of the sprawling city. He blames Batman (Played by Val Kilmer) for not intervening in a courtroom accident that left half of his face horribly scarred. Two-Face soon finds an ally in the rubbery terrorist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Played by Jim Carrey), a disgruntled former employee of Wayne Enterprises who is out to stick it to his idol, Bruce Wayne. The Riddler devises a way to suck the secrets out of the heads of the helpless citizens of Gotham, which allows him to get inside Batman’s mind and figure out his true identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has assumed responsibility for the young Dick Grayson (Played by Chris O’Donnell), who watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by the bloodthirsty Two-Face. As Dick spends more and more time in Wayne Manor, he begins to suspect that Wayne is hiding something and he is determined to find out what that secret is. As The Riddler and Two-Face close in on the city, Bruce Wayne begins to grapple with his true identity, leading him to consider hanging up the cape for good.
In the past, I have criticized Burton’s Batman films for not exploring the psychology of Bruce Wayne and what drives him to dress up like a giant bat. Schumacher’s Batman Forever attempts to wrap its head around why Bruce does this and while I admire the effort, it is shoddy and half-hearted. Bruce is urged by love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Played by Nicole Kidman) to face down his demons, which leads to a handful of moody flashbacks that are ripe with the darkness of the first two films. Unfortunately, a good majority of this side plot was removed from Batman Forever due to the studio’s fear of venturing back into the dark side of Batman. This is just one of the missed opportunities in Batman Forever. There are tons of moments that appear to be going in the right direction but are thrown off by studio interference. Many are quick to place ALL the blame on Schumacher, labeling him the only person responsible for Batman crumbling to glittery ash, but I think Warner Bros. also played a part in this monstrosity. I was always hesitant to put all of the blame on him because you will catch glimpses of the film that Schumacher wanted to make. There are some bleak touches to be found if you are willing to look closely, something that saves Batman Forever from being a total turd.
Another positive that Batman Forever has working in its favor is the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer continues to play Wayne with a straight face, refusing to stop and wink at the audience even when Schumacher slaps nipples on his armor. When he puts on the Batsuit, Kilmer communicates in a whisper that does seem perfect for a guy dressing up like a giant bat, which softens the blow of campy lines of dialogue like, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Things really hit rock bottom for Kilmer when he is forced to team up with O’Donnell’s Robin, who does nothing to lift the creeping veil of camp that is slowly draping over the film. Schumacher also hints at a homosexual spark between the two crime fighters, which would be okay if the previous two films had hinted that Bruce grapples with his sexuality but that isn’t the case here. Kilmer is forced to morph the brooding hero, who has had feelings for Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle in the past, into a bisexual with an identity crisis. It’s a bizarre touch to throw into the series in the third quarter but Kilmer keeps a cool head with the murky twist.
To make things worse for Batman Forever, O’Donnell has no clue how to approach the Boy Wonder. At times, he wants to be just as brooding and dark as Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and at others, he wants to be a party-boy rebel without a real cause. I had mixed feelings about his character but he really rubbed me the wrong way when he jacked the Batmobile and takes it out for a joyride. Personally, I could have done without the inclusion of Robin, as I personally have never been a huge fan of the character. Then we have the two villains, both who lift the buffoonery of Nicholson’s Joker but forget the measured menace that made his character so unforgettable. When Carrey isn’t on the screen with him, Jones actually knows how to handle his split-personality wacko but whenever the question-mark-clad Carrey enters the scene, the two seem like they are in a contest to see who can out-camp the other. Carrey wins the contest and turns the Riddler into a heavily caffeinated version of the Joker who loves one-liners and loves light-up jackets. Jones and Carrey do an admirable job with the material they are given, but I wish they weren’t asked to act like they are two giddy teenagers. Matching Kilmer’s somber tone is Nicole Kidman’s sexy psychologist (a fitting love interest for this film), who is here to coax the demons out of Wayne. Also back is Michael Gough as the faithful butler Alfred, who contributes another quality performance, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, who once again has absolutely nothing to do with his iconic character.
As I stated earlier, Batman Forever was the biggest Batman film at the time and Schumacher loads it with enough action to live up to that reputation. The film does have some marvelous sets even if they do turn Batman Forever into a gigantic neon dance club. The fight scenes lack the brutality of Batman and Batman Returns, at times seeming like the characters are dance fighting (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were) rather than actually fighting for their lives. Schumacher and his crew hope to overwhelm us with action and eye candy so that we won’t notice the fact that the film basically has no plot and they almost succeed. Luckily, Kilmer is a nice fit for Batman and it is a shame he didn’t stick around to elaborate on his performance, but I can’t say I blame him for abandoning the character when the studio is more interested in selling toys rather than making something coherent. Overall, Batman Forever is a regressive film that appeals more to kids than it does to the adult viewers looking for something substantial and weighty. Oh well, at least there wasn’t any “Wham” or “Pow” to speak of, which was a relief for a film that hits the ground with a campy joke about Batman stopping for drive-thru.
Batman Forever is available on Blu-ray and DVD.