For every one of the problems with Dredd – and there are a few we’ll eventually get to – there’s really quite a lot to admire. Not least that it feels like the project started with a firm understanding of how its central character should be depicted, something that remains completely intact in the final cut.
Easily the hardest-edged comic book adaptation we’ve seen in a long, long time, this second attempt to bring Dredd to the big screen is a far more faithful beast than the oft-maligned 1995 movie. Right from the off, we’re dragged into the future world of Mega City One. It’s a horrible, dirty, sprawling rats’ nest of crime, full of endless concrete. It’s also overseen by a series of Judges, who act as judge, jury and executioner as they attempt to bring order to the city. If you’re looking for a definition of ‘unwinnable war’, what the Judges face in Mega-City One is a good place to start.
But that doesn’t stop them trying, and thus we meet Judge Dredd, played by Karl Urban – and unlike Sylvester Stallone’s take on the character, his helmet remains on his head for the entire movie. Urban’s Dredd channels Clint Eastwood (pre-empty chair incident), barking out words only when necessary, and never betraying the slightest hint of emotion. It’s an excellent performance from someone who clearly understands the role. The focus of the film itself is effectively on one day in Judge Dredd’s life, marrying up elements of Training Day and The Raid as it does so.
The premise here is that Dredd has this single day to find out whether new rookie Anderson has got what it takes to be a judge. Unfortunately, it’s also the day they end up in a 200-story building under the rule of drug baron Ma-Ma. She’s peddling a narcotic by the name of Slo-Mo, and Dredd and Anderson soon find themselves imprisoned in the block, fighting to bring the criminals within it to justice.
It’s a simple setup, and quite a wise one. After all, this Dredd doesn’t have the budget of its contemporaries, and the money thus has to be spent very wisely. There’s some solid effects work to establish the perspective and tone of the city, but more interestingly, they filmmakers have spent the cash on details. Graphic displays, make-up, signs, little things in the background that give more realism and texture to a world than a computer graphic can generally give you.
The flip side to all of this, though, is there’s not actually a lot of story. Furthermore, even though Olivia Thirlby’s excellent Anderson (again, captured faithfully from the comics) – effectively in the Doctor Who companion role, narratively – carries the emotional burden of the film (not least in a sequence where she meets one of the block’s residents), there’s no real opportunity to get under the skin of the main characters. It boils down, then, to a simple case of law enforcers versus criminals, and not a lot more than that.
But it does commit to what it’s trying to do, and the world it’s trying to represent. Alex Garland’s sparse dialogue is harsh, and true to both Dredd and the original 2000AD strips. Furthermore, there’s no attempt whatsoever to soften the film. This is a brutal piece of work, and director Pete Travis doesn’t shy away from that at all. Blood splatters, people die in horrible circumstances, and the effects of Slo-Mo are ever present (although this does mean we get a few over-extended slow-motion scenes which outstay their welcomea little).
Credit, too, to Lena Headey, who’s already shown that she can be a complicated antagonist in Game Of Thrones. There isn’t the same depth to her character in Dredd, but as Ma-Ma, she’s a convincing villain, and there’s little doubting her commitment to the role. You’re never in any doubt at all that her character is a nasty, ruthless individual, living in a nasty, ruthless world.
Dredd is rough, loud and brash, then, a film that doesn’t get everything right, and has seen some of its thunder stolen by The Raid earlier this year. But it’s a movie you can’t help but commend.
Consider this: when Spider-Man 3 disappointed, Sony took the safe option with its following film of the webslinger, cutting all the edges off and making as conventional a movie as possible in The Amazing Spider-Man. The first Judge Dredd film, appreciating it was much further back, also disappointed, but the team behind Dredd have gone in the other direction. While others are looking to make comic book movies that appeal to the largest audience possible, those behind Dredd went right back to the darkness of the source material, and instead brought that to the screen. As a result, in the UK the film has an 18 certificate, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that it deserves it.
Dredd might not always make for the most even and enjoyable of films (and its box office returns will inevitably be dwarfed by the Batmans and Spider-Mans of the world). Yet when it sparks into life, when you see just how much care and passion is behind it, and when it all hangs together, it becomes clear that it’s not just a film that deserves to be seen, it’s one that deserves to be supported and applauded, too.
Dredd is the kind of comic-book movie that they weren’t supposed to be making anymore. Luckily for us, someone decided to ignore that.
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