Ma-Ma’s Not the Law: Revisiting Dredd

Does the Judge still have it?

Dredd is the type of comic book movie you thought they no longer made: Bloody, straight-faced, and pessimistic. It’s was also one of 2012′s most laudable adult entertainments, doing almost everything right in its mission to give Dreddheads a new cult classic to embrace. And, yes, he kept the iconic helmet on for the entire running time.

The movie introduces fascistic super cop Judge Joseph Dredd (Karl Urban) in much the same way his creators, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, revealed him in Prog (Issue) 2 of 2000 AD in 1977. Riding his trusty “Lawmaster” motorbike, he’s chasing down perps on the cancerous streets of Mega-City One; a typically dystopian metropolis surrounded on all sides by the nuclear-ravaged Cursed Earth. After some on-the-nose exposition that sets up this unflinchingly bleak universe, the film proceeds to make its 18-rated aspirations clear. Cornering a felon who makes the unwise decision of taking a hostage, Dredd proceeds to cook the poor bastard’s brain from the inside. Why stand around negotiating when you have a “Lawgiver” with six different types of ammunition?

Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later) had a mere $45 million at their disposal, which was no doubt demanded by their R-rated aims, meaning that the resulting story is refreshingly stripped down. Like a lot of the character’s early appearances, this is just another day on the job for the Dirty Harry-esque Judge Dredd. His superiors at the Hall of Justice assign him a rookie partner for the next twenty-four hours, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant by-product of the atomic wars which gave her psychic powers. Little does Anderson know that it will be a trial by fire. After investigating a triple-homicide in mega-block Peach Trees, a towering cesspool, they are locked inside by the demented Ma-Ma (an excellent Lena Headey). The murderous crime boss orders the block’s occupants to hunt the pair down, forcing Dredd and Anderson to work their way up the levels judging perps as they go. There will be blood… lots and lots of blood.

Early buzz was not good for Dredd. The task of surpassing the 1995 Sylvester Stallone “adaptation” might have seemed like an easy task, but trying to create a faithful vision of the ultra-violent comic book source would no doubt fall victim to compromise. Then there was the initial trailer, which did little to sell the final film’s many accomplishments. The die-hard fans were understandably apprehensive about this second visit to Mega-City One. But they needn’t have worried – Dredd really is the film Stallone and his studio didn’t have the cojones to make  near twenty-years ago. And while I have encountered a worrying number of people who think this new version is laughable, inexplicably, it continues to function perfectly for me.

At the time, many were comparing this to Indonesian action classic The Raid, another hyperbolic film set in a high-rise. A lot of journalists picked up on this without considering the fact that Dredd hit production well before that low-budget hit. It’s also rather ignorant and ill-informed to slate this film for taking a plot that wasn’t even The Raid‘s creation to begin with. Ever heard of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death? How about Die Hard? Regardless, like The Raid, Dredd takes this thin narrative and turns it into an asset. There are no useless sub-plots or even a hint of attraction between Dredd and Anderson – once the plot kicks-in, it’s a relentless race to the finish line.

The carnage is compact and delivered with brute force; if you’ve ever wanted to see what a 200-storey fall does to a body when it hits the asphalt, this movie shows you three times in the span of a minute. This film earns the 18. Travis also has the “Slow-Mo” gimmick at his disposal – a drug that slows the brain down to 1% its normal speed, allowing for stunning moments of bullets tearing through flesh in total clarity. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who could be this film’s true star, elevates this idea to the level of brilliance in perfectly composed shots that will linger with you for days. Add Paul Leonard-Morgan’s appropriately futuristic score and you have action scenes that keep the pace enjoyably frenetic.

Most importantly, Dredd succeeds in taking out the trash without ever pushing credibility too far. He’s a human with a finely honed skill-set, not an impervious superhero. The lack of grandstanding set-pieces might disappoint some, but there’s a palpable sense of danger that was entirely lacking in that summer’s other comic book blockbusters. A scene where Ma-Ma unleashes a mini-gun assault on our intrepid Judges could be the action highlight, but the sequence is also emblematic of the film’s take-no-prisoners attitude, with families and passers-by bursting into showers of plasma.

As a counterpoint to the bloodshed, we have the beautiful Anderson (sans helmet), who is the real protagonist of Dredd. A character with her own spin-off comic, the Judge-in-waiting is learning the rules of her profession along with the audience, and her efforts to gain Dredd’s respect provide moments of levity that are greatly appreciated. Thirlby marks herself out as a talent to watch, particularly in a stand-out moment when she enters the mind of a perp with her special ability, making her a worthy companion.

As portrayed by self-confessed fan Karl Urban, Dredd is every bit the fearless anti-hero Wagner and Ezquerra envisioned all those years ago. A man of few words, we learn everything we need to know about this Judge by the way he carries himself and dispenses justice. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t offer the odd glimmer of humanity; his interplay with the courageous Anderson gives the film a heart beneath the near-constant slaughter. The actor has his part down – the stoicism, strength, and sarcasm is all there. After Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Urban’s Dredd could be the greatest live-action representation of a comic book character to date.

I only have one caveat for this fine film. Travis didn’t have the money to get out into Mega-City One and explore, so it’s perhaps wise that Garland restricted the action to a single location. The ’95 Danny Cannon misfire was more accurate in its depiction of the comic’s city (one of the few elements it nailed), but Dredd‘s world feels more feasible in a post-apocalyptic America. MC1 needed more definition, but the focus here was in getting the title character correct.

Dredd is a love-letter to fans of 2000 AD who have waited patiently for a motion picture to do the material justice. It’s an exciting, straightforward blast of escapism that isn’t profound but delivers everything its target audience expects with welcome artistry. Travis and Garland didn’t compromise their vision to make something commercial, and it’s proof positive that giving comic book readers what they want is the way to go. This is quite possibly one of my favourite films of all time.

Sequel, please.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The Peach Tree block is named after a restaurant in Shrewsbury, the place where screenwriter Alex Garland and Judge Dredd creator John Wagner first met to discuss the film.
  • In Ma-Ma’s penthouse there is a Judge’s helmet hanging on her wall with a length of gold chain attached to it, a nod to the comic design of Judge Dredd where the gold chain would link the badge to the uniform collar.
  • In the classroom in Peach Trees, as well as in the mall, the new American flag can be seen. It only has six stars representing the mega states.
  • In the original strip, profanity was necessarily substituted with invented words, notably the often-shouted expletive, “DROKK!” In this film, genuine swearing is used throughout, but ‘DROKK’ is referenced in the opening scene as it is emblazoned across the back of a jacket when the criminals are fleeing in the van.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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