This review was originally printed as part of Hollywood.com's Comic-Con 2012 coverage
A reimagining of the 2000 AD label comic book that inspired Judge Dredd the 1994 Sylvester Stallone action flick that took sci-fi wackiness to new heights Dredd scales back on the futuristic elements and puts an emphasis on the brutality in store for the Judge's criminal victims. In this not-so-distant world a Judge has the power to decide your fate right upon capture — and usually the sentence involves some type of ammunition being fired into the offender's skull. Dredd is a grimy smoldering relentless 90 minutes that manages to inject its in-your-face fight scenes with an unexpected bit of humanity. Shocking considering the buckets of blood spilled during Judge Dredd's warpath which begins from his very first appearance.
This time around Dredd is played by Karl Urban a chiseled beast of a dude who balances the machismo with a healthy dose of one-liner comedy. A great central hero. To investigate a series of murders connected to one of Mega City 1's most notorious crime figureheads Dredd is partnered with an exact opposite: Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby) a new recruit who makes up for her lack of killer instinct with a mutant psychic power. She may not have the throat-ripping capabilities of Dredd but once this girl gets in a baddie's head it's over. Dredd is wary of his new sidekick potential — even more so when the challenge they face reveals itself. Cooped up at the top of a 120+ story building is Ma-Ma (Lena Hedley) whose operation will soon put a new drug — dubbed "Slo-Mo" — in the hands of every Mega City 1 citizen. To stop her Dredd and Cassandra must slay her goons as they ascend the skyscraper. Simple premise lots of bloodshed.
Unlike this year's The Raid which took a similar approach to the non-stop antics of a martial arts film Dredd opts for the slow burn approach. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) wants us to take a big whiff of every musky apartment in Ma-Ma's "Peach Trees" tower; he wants us to feel every drip of sweat that trickles down Dredd's stubble while the law enforcer waits patiently to attack; he wants us to feel the complete stop of time when the Slo-Mo drug kicks in and even droplets of suddy bath water hang in the air from a splash; and he wants us to feel like we're in the front seat of a Gallagher show when Dredd fires an explosive bullet into the mouth of a henchman and watches the head explode into bits (all in clear and crisp 3D). Dredd is near-fetishistic in its approach to gore – I found myself mouth agape making audible "EEEEEEEEAAAAH" sounds throughout the film — but plays well to the lead character's ferocious nature.
The hyper-style doesn't end with Dredd's unique array of finishing moves either; Cassandra's telepathy is a weapon of the senses that Travis mines for every flashy montage sequence he can squeeze out of it. In one sequence Cassandra uncovers an important clue by subjecting one of Ma-Ma's assailants to mental torture a terrifying whirlwind of imagery of saturated nightmares (if you've ever watched Saw after scarfing down an undercooked burrito you know what I mean). Travis amps "MTV editing" in these sequences an assault to the senses that's just as purposefully grating as the gritty fight sequences.
What makes the whole thing worth watching are the film's two leads. Urban has the thankless task of playing Dredd under the Judge's signature mask — someone obviously forgot to tell the police force of the future that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Urban makes up for it with a spectrum of snarls and a voice that sends chills down the spine. He also knows his way around comedy timing (as evidenced by his equally-impressive performance as Bones in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) delivering kitschy zingers that click with Dredd's rough and tough world. The yin to his yang Cassandra could have been another helpless female costar who steps in with magical powers when the time is right but Thirlby is the real heart and soul of Dredd breathing compassion into a dimly lit situation and reflecting the grey morality of the entire Judge program. Why are people cool with cops coming in and blowing them away when they see fit? Why is that the new definition of heroism? The script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later Never Let Me Go) is smart to ask those questions and Cassandra is the perfect proxy. Thirlby as adorable as she is plays the gal fierce a sensible kind of Judge that can live side by side with Dredd.
There are a lot of people who won't be able to stomach Dredd partly for the level of violence partly for the consistency and pace of how that violence is unleashed. The small scale and singular location of the action don't allow Dredd to keep the surprises coming. After awhile watching human heads splatter like water balloons becomes taxing and unenjoyable (which some psychologists may say should have been the case in the first place). Hedley does a decent job of making her psychotic Ma-Ma into a wicked villain who deserves her due but without a fleshed out cause and bigger picture implications it's hard to care. Her squad of faceless men are more like punching bags then characters. But over-the-top mayhem has its place and when accompanied by a badass like Dredd and a pumping electronica score it's hard not to cheer when the Judge lays down the gruesome law. Dredd isn't a great film but it's a great Comic-Con film — one worth catching at midnight and screaming your lungs out all in good absurd fun.
"You can make her do anything you want… For men everywhere tell me you're not going to let that go to waste."
It's a chilling turn of phrase that Chris Messina's character Henry utters when he meets the woman that his brother Calvin wrote into being. Calvin played by Paul Dano is a frustrated writer but more than that a writer who published to great acclaim at a young age who has yet to do anything since. He begins writing a character named Ruby Sparks and as he falls in love with his creation he can't stop writing. It's exhilarating and addictive. Played by Dano's real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan Ruby Sparks is a one-dimensional male fantasy a cutesy young woman on roller skates… until she appears in his kitchen one morning. Calvin quickly learns that even though he can control her with a few taps on his typewriter Ruby has an ever-changing will of her own.
Ruby Sparks is written by Kazan with the sort of bite that a trailer can't be tied up with a neat little bow. There is gorgeous California sunshine an airy house in a hip part of Los Angeles the trendy Figaro café where Calvin finds out that other people can see Ruby and a delightful interlude with Calvin's hippie mother and stepfather played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. As gorgeous and gleeful and wide-eyed as Ruby is and as much as Calvin adores her the relationship develops and changes even as he succumbs to the temptation to rewrite her. Calvin an essentially insecure man unravels and becomes more and more of a controlling jerk until he's faced with the truth of how far he's willing to go to keep Ruby from leaving him. It becomes sad and frankly disturbing with an admirably raw performance by Kazan that lingers.
While Ruby Sparks serves as an interesting commentary on wish fulfillment in fiction writing its juicy subtext is far more important. Under the surface the film delves into how we're culpable for the way we see our lovers and how we want to change them or make them something they're not. Eventually Calvin has to decide whether or not he wants to continue editing Ruby to fit his specifications; he has to face that that means about him as a person and as a man. It's Pygmalion with a feminist twist. We see plenty of dumb romantic comedies about women tricking men into changing but it seems like there's an endless parade of indie films written by men about loveably girly women whose only reason for being is to act as a catalyst for the man's emotional growth. While this is absolutely true in some ways for Ruby and Calvin there's a meat to the script and Kazan's performance that makes "Ruby" rise to the top. There are plenty of words (or that overused phrase) we can use to describe Ruby but in the end Calvin wrote those traits into her and these are details that Ruby shucks off as she grows. Similarly as women grow up we learn we can (and have to) stop performing tricks to become the person our significant other wants or sees in us.
Without revealing too much the end of Ruby Sparks could be read a number of ways. On one hand it is a bit of a misstep that undermines the general thrust of the story but it could also be seen as simply a happier more hopeful ending. Romantics will find it satisfying but those hoping for Ruby's full emancipation might find it lacking.
This is the first film for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since 2006's Little Miss Sunshine and although they have much in common — including Dano — Ruby is a darker unrulier movie. The idea of movie-goers being led in to see Ruby because of Faris and Dayton's names or because of the trailer is delightful because they're going to get a little bit of a different experience than they're prepared for.
[Full disclosure: I interviewed Zoe Kazan for a profile in the August/September issue of BUST magazine.]