Wonderful fights between narcissism and worthlessness

I watched an Action Movie (Dredd)

on September 24, 2012

I have been listening to La Roux hardcore since watching the trailer for Dredd, and listening to the trailer to listen to the song cemented this film in my head. I originally only wanted to see Dredd to see if it passed the Beichdel Test (video from Feminist Frequency here on the Test) because, from the trailer, it looked like a pretty typical action movie with cop elements, so seeing THAT be one of the hallowed few to pass the Beichdel Test would have filled me with endless glee. I also still identify as an action movie fan even though the genre seems to be eschewing closer to its dumb and sexist roots lately (big names in the genre: Expendables, Transformers) rather than develop or break new ground despite the example and success set by Inception and, to a certain extent, The Hunger Games.


The rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) is one of two primary on-screen women as her and superior officer and judge Dredd (Karl Urban) mow through groups of thug dudes on their way to judge Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) [I AM THE BACK OF A DVD CASE], head of a drug ring / gang that controls a 200-story apartment building. I’d summarize the plot more, but really, the plot’s a macguffin to get to action and character interaction, which are both pretty great (more on the action in a bit). Dredd’s mentoring the rookie Anderson, they go to the apartment tower because of three murders, they bust in on a lil drug den and take a lackey who could give up the whole drug ring, so Ma-Ma takes control of security and the whole tower and tells the denizens to bring the judges to her. Cue the survival and eventual vengeance-on-Ma-Ma mission while also keeping the lackey with them. Watching the trailer, I saw the rookie was a woman, I saw the head villain was a woman, and I saw a shitton of mindless violence, and I giggled at the thought that this movie, looking every bit as action as the Expendables, could pass the Beichdel test with flying colors.

The film solidly fails the Beichdel test though. Anderson speaks to three women in the course of the film. The first is a superior officer the judges report to at the beginning of the film, but it is to give her assessment of Dredd, a man, and also to reveal Anderson’s a psychic. The second is a random apartment-dweller who Anderson either knew before being recruited as an orphaned child to Judge training or mindread for a name just to get a foot in the door, but the woman, while helping them, makes it clear she’s doing it because she’s worried her husband will run afoul of the judges. Iffy. The third is a corrupt woman judge who is hunting the rookie. It’s about 5 seconds long and one-sided; the corrupted judge tells Anderson to put her gun down because she’s backup, Anderson psychics that it’s bullshit, and she murders the corrupt judge. I guess maaaybe this could count as a pass? But it’s not really a qualifier.

What surprised me most was, despite failing the Beichdel Test, this movie was actually fairly progressive in its depictions of women as well as race, the first despite Anderson and Ma-Ma being the Smurfette of most scenes and only being in the same room twice (the second time being the final confrontation where Anderson gets hit in a shootout with the last remaining thugs and stays down anyways). Dredd has the same problem most films do where racial diversity means black people, and the main three characters are white, but the screen is shared pretty evenly between both races. There are black judges, the superior officer who interviews Anderson at the start of the film is black, the character who tells Dredd and Anderson about Ma-Ma and her gang running the apartment bloc (which has an ethnically diverse resident group) is black, as well as the lackey who the judges apprehend and who they keep as they navigate the building. The gang members who get mowed down as action fodder are also a pretty even mix. It makes the world feel as though black people are included as much as the white people and don’t just fill a niche or act as a minority.

Being that most characters that aren’t part of a crowd are being shot, there are only two women who get much characterization: Anderson and Ma-Ma. Ma-Ma, as the head of her gang, is genuinely great, especially given the action genre. The only tropes she falls into are non-gendered and character-based: we know nothing except that she’s the head of the gang, brutal, ruthless, and wants to control the city through the use of the drugs she produces. Usually this blank slate character is male, so having a woman is a progressive casting choice alone, but Dredd also avoids feminizing the role, which I appreciated immensely. Lena Headey plays the role straight and wonderfully; Ma-Ma doesn’t rule with sexuality, but with an iron fist. She punches one guy in the face for his failure, orders her gang around in a way that lets us know she cares shit-all about them save her number two (who is a man who she is in no way sexual with yay), and runs a knife up her tech expert’s stomach to “motivate him” to do better during one scene. She’s every bit the bosses of other groups of bad guys in other action movies, and it works in a weirdly feminist way.

Anderson is a bit more complicated, but also handled very well by the film. Anderson does fall into some tropes, but they’re identifiable as rookie tropes and come off as such. Her interactions with Dredd fall into the rookie-ranking relationship, which has Dredd mostly quizzing her on deserved sentences and growing throughout the course of the film to see her as ready for duty. She has to deal with the ramifications of actually killing people in the field, and when they kill their first group of be-gunned thugs, Dredd leaves it to her to kill the one left alive and coughing out blood, trying to beg for his life. It affects her, more so when they get help from the apartment-dweller who just wants to ensure her husband’s safety and, looking at mantle pictures, Anderson sees the husband is the man she executed. This could have skewed to death and the horror of war affecting her as a woman, but it sticks to non-gendered impacts and trends. She is visibly shaken by the horror of her actions and Dredd’s seeming flippance towards them (they’ve been judged, no wrong done!), but it’s subtle. She never breaks down in tears, and by the end of the film she’s both ready to confront Ma-Ma, not withering or traumatized into inaction, but also ready to voluntarily quit being a judge afterwards, having realized the horrors of violent conflict and wanton death may be too much to bear given they happen to very real humans.

The one troubling scene sexism-wise is between Anderson and the lackey the judges cart around for half the movie. Dredd begins to interrogate him, which equals beating the shit out of him, when Anderson tells Dredd to stop and steps in to do it psychically. Her and the lackey end up in his mind, which is visually them in a darkened room where images flit across the screen as he thinks of things. Of course, he thinks of fucking her to try and shock her (which she isn’t shocked by, although he has some other shocking thought we don’t see that gets to her a bit later), but while the film makes it clear Anderson’s in control and it’s all mental, visually it plays out; Anderson unzips her judge’s uniform exposing a bit of side boob and then it cuts to her naked back, as well as showing full-body sex with creative use of shadows to cover up genitals (although that may have been a body double, it was good shadow use). Further on in Dredd, the lackey gets free and takes Anderson hostage by overpowering her, taking her to Ma-Ma and then being put in charge of killing her. When she was taken hostage my heart sank, but to the movie’s credit, it’s both playing the rookie-ranking trope that a lot of films use for male stars and then goes on to completely subvert it. Anderson lets the lackey threaten her with her judge’s gun, which then flashes “Incorrect I.D.” and blows his hand off. She then makes her own escape, beating the shit physically out of some goons and killing a corrupt judge before rescuing Dredd from a shootout with the other corrupt judges after he ran out of bullets and got shot. It makes the use of damsel in distress, however temporary, justified while leaving out most of the baggage that comes with the trope.

Ultimately I’m not sure the better handling of women in this film than most general films, let alone action ones, may have been intentionally breaking tropes against women as much as breaking action film tropes. The way Dredd handles violence was surreal and unique. The movie’s an almost by-the-books killfest with action, blood and gore everywhere, but the directing choices elevate the way Dredd uses and comments on violence. Some shots linger repeatedly, uncomfortably on dead bodies, and others present violent death as a fact of life for this civilization. The first five minutes of the film have Dredd chasing three suspects in a van through city streets. A random person is hit by the van and leaves a bloody crack in the windshield and then you see him tumbling viciously before Dredd nonchalantly drives around him. After crashing their van one guy escapes on foot and shoots a few people; next scene their blood is being cleaned up by a street sweeper while they remain dead on the ground. Dredd eventually corners the last suspect who’s taken a hostage, judges him, sentences death, and then shoots him in the mouth with an incendiary round that melts his face off brutally. The hostage looks like she’ll freak out, but then she doesn’t and thanks the judge. Dredd has this same sort of play with your expectations throughout. Anderson uses her psychic powers throughout the movie, so when one of the corrupt judges, believing she’ll either get to shoot first or Anderson will hesitate and she’ll still shoot first, tracks Anderson down, we know how the scene will play out, but we also have some expectations of how that will look. Mine was not, “The corrupt judge will confront Anderson in a hallway, say she’s backup, get psychic-sensed and then get a round of bullets to the chest all in the span of five seconds.”

But that’s why I enjoyed Dredd so fucking much! It genuinely surprised me, while also not disgusting me with the treatment of its characters. The terrific acting from the main cast helped, because there are plenty of comic book quips and dialogue that could have fallen flat, but in trying to break from action genre tropes, Dredd managed to surpass them and deliver an excellent, enjoyable, and somewhat progressive experience.

Uh…… 3 stars I guess?

Also, quick point: the visuals were top-fucking-notch. The drug at the center of the drug ring is a future-drug called Slo-Mo that slows time down to 1% normal passage, and visually in the film also saturates colors and applies a rainbow effect, like a shimmering bubble. It’s gorgeous, used amazingly throughout the film, and spectacularly in one scene where it quick-cuts between slow drug effect shots and quick realtime shots. Almost makes me wish I’d seen Dredd in 3D. This didn’t fit in the piece really, but shit was it ever great.


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