There’s a special kind of presence and indifference towards vanity that encourages an actor to take a role which mostly obscures their face and voice. Dustin Hoffman is unrecognizable as the essentially facially-burned Mumbles in Dick Tracy. Though John Hurt is the lead, the prosthetic deformities he shoulders in The Elephant Man demand, not counter intuitively, the conveyed pathos come from within. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, at least the scenes set in the present, ask Matthieu Amalric to funnel the seismic emotional shifts one encounters throughout a life into the steady, though at times hesitant, blinking of a single eyelid. In all these instances, the actors react to their respective constraints with incredible skill, adopting idiosyncrasies such that their shortened range of communication to the audience is not so much diminished, but simply requires smaller and more considered movements. This last year alone has shown us two more instances of hidden or altered faces and the responses by the respective actors. In The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy has to give off an air of menace sprinkled with intelligence, resolution, fanaticism and spontaneity, all while his mouth and most of his bottom jaw is encased in a gas mask which also modifies his speaking voice. It’s actually kind of a no-lose situation for an actor, a built in excuse for not doing more or standing out. This excuse is not necessary, however, since Hardy uses the steady, measured movements and hypnotic eye contact to great success. The other instance from this past year is that of Karl Urban in Dredd. While the actors listed above are either Oscar winners (Hoffman), nominees (Hurt), Cannes certified (Amalric) or set for stardom (Hardy), Urban occupies a curious niche in Hollywood. He is or has been a part of two enormously successful franchises (Star Trek and Lord of the Rings), respectively. Despite the cache and profile this affords, he still very much likes to participate in horrible action movies (Doom, Red). Having a respectable though not A-list level name does allow him, fortunately for us, to choose projects without the prestige of Middle Earth or the Starship Enterprise. Case in point: Dredd. The plot of Dredd is even more straightforward than The Raid: Redemption, and shares many similarities. In a dystopian future, the United States has evolved to have people in Mega-cities, vast metropolises with severe crime rates and fast acting, decisively punitive law enforcers: Judges. Judge Dredd is seen in an early sequence pursuing and, with little hesitation, dispatching of a speeding car full of junkies-turned-firing squad. Upon returning to base, the stoic, habitual growler is presented with a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) whose test taking skills are lackluster but possessing a powerful psychic ability. With the odd-couple tandem established, the duo head out for Thirlby’s 24 hour observance period, responding to a heinous crime scene where skinned victims are hurled several stories into the lobby of a massive housing complex. It’s revealed early on the perpetrator of this and other grisly confrontations is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), an unbalanced former working-girl who has muscled out rival gangs with unmatched ruthlessness. Ma-Ma’s game is drug-running, primarily, offering an inhaler-distributed toxin nicknamed “slo-mo” for the time-delayed sensation experienced by the users. The scenes of people using “slo-mo” are strangely beautiful and certainly designed with the 3-D presentation in mind, all shimmering globs of water and twinkling lights. With some identifications of the skinned men and a little psychic sleuthing, Urban and Thirlby begin their difficult investigation. Almost immediately, this leads to a lockdown of the complex which essentially becomes a fortress of goons and psychopaths for the officers to traverse (raid, if you will). As they appreciate their predicament and siphon the occasional piece of information from Avon Barksdale, the carnage and destruction is ratcheted up with detached but stylish glee. A proponent of instant judgment and punishment, Urban’s primary concern with Thirlby is her reticence to pull the trigger, though this is assuaged since survival is the primary objective and hesitation leads to bad things. Thirlby has the right balance of smart aleck insubordination and clean slate teachability. Her wide eyes and welcoming face are appropriately contrasted with Urban’s superhero steel jaw and opaque visor – expressionless, clinical and incorruptible. His voice never rises beyond the steady, gravelly cadence one would expect to be the result of years spent in this wasteland. The performance asks only for stoic line readings, balanced bodily movements and an eagerness to not steal the show. It’s a role any actor of his size could have done, but almost because of that open-ended nature, having seen it I can’t imagine anyone else skulking the floors and apartments, administering martial law. Bullets fly, bodies pile high and the inevitable betrayal plot materializes. Through it all, the tone is kept remarkably light in the face of violence and torture most comic book movies wouldn’t dare approach. The methodical way both sides of the law dispatch one another makes The Dark Knight or The Avengers look positively childish – smirking heroes for an audience who don’t want the stakes raised to a level where there are genuine consequences. Which isn’t to say the result of Dredd is ever in doubt, though if it had ventured into truly nihilistic territory, what came before would have been fair warning for would-be complainers. Amalric steadily and longingly blinks the alphabet, letter by letter until words and sentences emerge, to compose his memoir – an undertaking so monumental it actually makes me tired just thinking about it. Urban shoots people through the face and pronounces judgment to loitering hobos. It takes all kinds, people.