Two cops are in for a rough ride when they are targeted for extermination by a relentless drug gang in a deadly apocalyptic environment.
Curiously, two different movies come out today promising the identical premise. What's amazing is that these films are so diametrically different.
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Dredd, directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point) from a screenplay by Alex Garland (The Beach) is a comic book adaptation set in a future in which the occupation of "judge" also includes "jury" and "executioner" in the job description.
This is OK with Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a hard-nosed law officer who metes out hard justice in the teeming post-apocalyptic burg of Mega City One. Dredd, who sports a perpetual reverse-smiley face under his helmet, is less than thrilled when he is assigned to evaluate promising rookie judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Casssandra is so named for her mutant psychic ability to read minds, almost as good as telling the future.
That talent comes in handy when she and Dredd are assigned to investigate a triple homicide in a 200-storey slum complex ruled by a scarred narcotics queen called Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who has cornered the Mega-market on a drug that seems to slow down time, called Slo-mo.
Dredd and Cassandra blithely enter the belly of the urban beast to make arrests. Ma-Ma, chagrined by the intrusion, seals off the block and sets her multiple minions to kill the judges.
Visually, Dredd is richly rewarding in its visuals, whether capturing the grim grunge of epic-scale urban blight, or in its depictions of the effects of Slo-mo, which not only suggests the blissful escape of a narcotic, but inevitably affords the filmmakers the indulgence of super slow-motion violence. (The movie's gleeful sadism is all the more disorienting coming from the director of Omagh, the story of the Irish peace initiative set in motion by a particularly senseless act of terrorism.)
There is some comic payoff too, thanks largely to Urban. Last seen as the loquacious Dr. McCoy in Star Trek, Urban strips the hero figure of almost all human qualities, save for slow-burning rage. It's a hilariously terse portrayal of a fascist fantasy figure. If eyes are the window to the soul, Urban dispenses with offering any clues to his depths: His helmet stays on throughout.
When Sylvester Stallone played the character is the 1995 misfire Judge Dredd, the actor apparently insisted on a character arc for Dredd so that he is a different person by the end of the film. If he bothered to verbalize, Urban's Judge Dredd would doubtless proclaim: Character arcs are for wussies.
With its dystopian future, its ultra-violence and its dark humour, Dredd sometimes succeeds in replicating the tone of Paul Verhoeven's great 1987 action-satire RoboCop. But within the film's giant visual scale, there is no actual fixed target for the jet-black humour, at least not in the same way Verhoeven's film laser-sighted the unholy alliance between justice and corporate interests.
Like its two heroes, cut off from the rest of the world, Dredd's satire has no place to go.
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If you've seen the trailer for writer-director David Ayer's End of Watch, you might assume (as I did) this is the same story set in contemporary south-central Los Angeles. Two mismatched cops invoke the ire of a Mexican drug cartel and find themselves trapped in a brutal battle for survival.
But of course, the trailer is offensively deceptive. Most of it seems to have been derived from the movie's late third act, which is a disservice to the 90 or so minutes that precede it.
Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pe±a) are seasoned partners cruising the streets of South Central, a place where, Zavala boasts, an officer can see more action in a day than most cops can experience in a lifetime.
Ayer, who explored the dark side of the force with his screenplay Training Day, pivots this movie on this tight partnership, encompassing a cultural divide that is not really a divide at all since both guys delight in deriding each other's heritage. Pe±a, a consistently fine, naturalistic actor is especially hilarious impersonating a white guy who would rather discuss new Starbucks coffee than talk about serious family matters.
The film sticks with Taylor and Zavala as they make their regular rounds, including the daily horrors of cop life (child abuse, assault, house fires). One encounter with a Latino street gang results in a memorable cobra-mongoose encounter between Taylor and a hoodlum who calls himself Big Evil. (My favorite bit of dialogue this year: "Why do they call you Big Evil?" "My evil is big.")
The two cops consistently find themselves crossing paths with one of the violent Mexican drug cartels making inroads into Southern California. They also have developments in the private lives: Zavala and his wife (Natalie Martinez) become parents and Taylor begins courting a sweet young woman. (Anna Kendrick only has one shining moment in an otherwise thankless girlfriend role).
Ayer's one questionable conceit in the film is that Brian is studying filmmaking, and has outfitted himself, his partner and their cruiser with tiny cameras that capture all the action in faux-documentary style.
But even this pays off in curious ways, including a parallel tendency of a Latino street gang to capture their criminal activities on video, a suggestion that the narcissism of communications technology knows no division of good guys and bad guys.
Mostly, though, this is a compelling slice of cop life, centred on the excellent chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. In fact, End of Watch is actually reminiscent of the fiction of cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh as an insider glimpse of law enforcement, encompassing bravado, friction, battlefield bonding, mischief and sheer horror. There is no higher praise than that.