Note – This gets pretty heavy with the spoilers. Short version – it’s better than what you thought it would be.
And thus the comic book adaptation machine soldiers onwards. Whilst Batman was well made, if slightly forgettable and The Avengers boasted some cracking dialogue, I’ve always had a problem with superhero films. Perhaps it’s the black and white moralising, or the oft repeated power = responsibility equation. Yawn….No, it’s not just that. More likely, its the costumes that put me off. No matter how well shot, directed and acted the Nolan-verse Batflicks are, they’re still about a man in a silly cape, strapped into a codpiece, dressed as bat. All good fun when contained within a heavily stylised or campy world. Crowbarring realism into costumed superhero flicks puts the capes and codpieces under a spotlight. Instead of drawing me into the story, kitchen sink reality is not the best home for pointy eared weirdos jumping from a building and talking in growl-speak. Give me THE INCREDIBLES with it’s plastic reality any day.
The latest comic book entity to ascend from the magazine racks is DREDD. Luckily for me, it’s a real treat. Whilst incredibly violent, scratch a bit deeper and you will find plenty more beyond the bloody squibs and body parts.
The story is set in a dark future, some decades past a devastating nuclear war and an environment near total collapse. The survivors are crammed into vast conurbations known as Mega-Cities. Food and employment is scarce. Society is broken, democracy has been declared a failure. What’s left of America is now under the totalitarian rule of a militarised judiciary. On the streets of Mega City One, Judges dispense instantaneous justice, often sentencing and executing the guilty within the same breath. This is the world of Judge Dredd, the films eponymous antihero. Paired with the rookie Judge Anderson (near washout and to Dredd’s initial disgust, a mutant with psychic powers), Dredd is dispatched to investigate a routine triple homicide (if your routine normally involves flayed bodies being hurled from a 200 storey tower block/self contained mini-city). Their investigations lead them to a suspect, but unknown to the Judges, the tower block is the personal fiefdom of Ma Ma, a vicious, deranged gang leader. A woman who follows her own laws, she locks the Judges into the tower and passes a death sentence on them. Unable to leave, Dredd and his Anderson have no choice but to fight everyone between them and Ma Ma..
So far, so formulaic… and negative comparisons have been made with the near identical premise of the cops and thugs punch ‘em up THE RAID. And just to make matters worse, the film seems to be exclusively shown in 3D, a format I loathe. But the advance word was incredible, the accusations of plagiarism obviously a case of coincidence rather than theft (DREDD was well into production with a locked script some time before THE RAID came out), and fortunately I was only 15 miles away from a cinema screening in 2D. So I just couldn’t help myself.
DREDD is a film that got under my skin and stayed with me for days after. A waiting-for-the-kettle-to-boil epiphany pretty much sealed the deal for me. It’s not just a well made genre film made on a comparatively small budget of $45 million, it may well be one of the best homegrown films for a long time. Take a bow, writer/producer Alex Garland and director Pete Travis.
Yep. It’s a genre film, dealing with a fantastical, exaggerated and stylised story set in the near future. OK, I may have had my doubts too, had I not grown up on the source material in the 80’s. Darkly satirical, the 2000AD comic strip about a lawman walking the beat in a hellish future megalopolis was a delightfully surreal, comedic, violent, thought provoking and mind expanding confectionary for my tiny little brain. While I left comics behind me somewhere in the mid 80’s, the character of Judge Dredd and the crazy, weird world he policed stayed with me into adulthood. Naturally, I paid attention to the Stallone iteration of the character, right up to the point that I actually saw it. My childhood memories of Dredd sullied by a man who looks like a steroidal mass of veins, lips and surgically taut skin squeezed into a lycra catsuit, completely misunderstanding the character and delivering a hammy performance like some weird mutant pit bull. Dredd is the faceless embodiment of authority, an anti-hero suspicious of democracy, serving up justice and repressing freedom. A frightening look at a possible future, whilst satirising our present. But the script, director and the all important star of the 1994 version completely missed the point with its dull heroics, inept comedy and stupid one liners.
The bar set low, all the 2012 version had to do was show up on time to be an improvement. Instead, the film makers dazzled me with a hallucinogenic, lean, muscular telling of the character. Devoid of any fat, the story is a simple day-in-the-life of a cop and a rookie, rather than the usual “oh fuck me, we got to save the world” heroics, actually felt refreshing in it’s stripped down honesty. A great example of minimal budget maximising storytelling.
And whilst the budget limitations of the current film rob us of the sweeping, sci-fi, futuristic vistas of both source material and the Stallone misfire, the world presented in the 2012 version seems frighteningly close to ours. It really does look like a world a few decades from now, some time after a devastating nuclear war, one that has to almost start civilisation from scratch, yet clearly making the same mistakes all over again. I found this take on Mega City One depressingly familiar and there hasn’t been such a recognisable dystopia on film since the excellent CHILDREN OF MEN.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a tough, violent, angry film. But it bears repeating, it’s better than you thought it would be. Beneath it’s steel skin, there is much more than just bloody mayhem to admire.
The performances are fantastic and the script is witty. Karl Urban is effective as the persistently grumpy Dredd, playing him with a quiet anger, yet allowing an occasional glimpse of something else beneath the surface of this stone hearted killing machine. Which is remarkable achievement, given that we see little of Urban’s face beyond a sneering mouth. In this film, Dredd never removes his helmet, a mistake the 1994 version made within it’s first 10 minutes.
Whilst Dredd remains faceless, literally and figuratively, the character of this incorruptible, fanatically authoritarian and seemingly immobile uber-cop takes a major step forwards. By the films conclusion, he has changed his mind about something… A small, glacial movement, but by Dredd’s standards, this is like the iceberg crashing into the Titanic.
Lena Headey’s turn as the twisted gang leader Ma Ma is equally impressive. A brutalised woman, seemingly devoid of human compassion, her face scarred and her teeth rotten. And yet, the quiet sadness in her performance between the moments of unrelenting nastiness suggest a depth and a backstory not immediately present in the script. Dredd and Ma Ma are clearly two sides of the same coin. Both authoritarians, both desiring control, both at the top of their respective trees. Two opposing forces struggling against each other in a world spiralling into chaos, Dredd and his counterpart are mirrors of the desires, concerns and fears that exist in all of us. We want security, laws, limits, restrictions… but we also want freedom and financial liberty. We want cheap fuel and cheap consumer goods and we’re prepared to go to war over them. And if we are wronged, our cheeks will remain unturned whilst yours will be slashed open. If Mega City One is a potential future vision of society, Dredd and Ma Ma’s extremism scarily represent what we may become. Like all good sci-fi, this has more to do with the present than it does the future.
While these two extremes are closer to one another than the poor civilians caught between them, Dredd is definitely closer to the angels than Ma Ma. He’s a cold hearted bastard, but even he is horrified by Ma Ma’s casual attitude towards genocide. Yet such is the strength of Lena’s performance, I maintained a level of sympathy for a character who has clearly suffered much at the hands of brutal men.
Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson plays the audience identification figure in a film wild enough to use a psychic cop in a fascist city state as an audience identification figure. Unlike Dredd, we always see her face and a quite a bit of her heart, too. The only character on the laws side to display sympathy for the criminal underclasses, she is empathic as she is telepathic. An open mind, to counter Dredd’s closed one. So naturally, we gravitate more towards her world view than Dredd’s, even though he’s probably a necessary evil in such a Screwy Louie, post meltdown world. Her character is the one who changes the most in the film, starting as a nervous rookie but ending up as Dredd’s equal. Stuck between two such extreme characters, Thirlby’s performance is strong enough to avoid being pulled under by their undertow.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Wood Harris, obviously known as Avon Barksdale from THE WIRE. Here he plays a smaller role as Kay, the murder suspect whose arrest kicks off the whole bloody affair. Whilst he’s not the main focus of the story, he’s effective in the few scenes he has with Thirlby’s character, especially when Anderson demonstrates to Kay and Dredd just how fucking awesome psychic powers can be.
Script wise, the story clips along at a nice pace. Whilst this is obviously a cheaper film than it’s predecessor, there are enough inventive twists in the story, setting and direction to keep you interested. Best of all, the film doesn’t take sides.
Strangely pro drug for a film who’s hero is a paragon of authority, this is a world so fast and frenetic, so dirty and hateful that the only respite is a drug that artificially slows you down, that warps the world into scintillating patterns and rainbow droplets, that makes you forget your 10am appointment, your deadline, your next day at the office… or the heavily armoured Judge blasting away your tires with their bike cannons! The only moments of beauty in this world comes as a byproduct of inhaling an illegal narcotic. As for Dredd, despite his horrifying attitude to democracy, freedom and the poor, he is clearly a man who heroically risks his life for others. Whilst we understand the characters viewpoints, we’re never expected to share them. Again, a step beyond the simplistic moralising of the Stallone version.
The film raises many questions about freedoms and rights by presenting a world that has none. With DREDD, we see the ugly reality of a world devoid of basic human rights for the accused. Without a procedural framework for trial and prosecution, the law, as dispensed by Dredd, takes on an almost a peculiar, individualistic form. In our system, the accused may seem clearly guilty, but a quirk of procedure may set that person free. Many consider this a fair trade, as the same rights and procedures that occasionally free the guilty protect the innocent. In Dredd’s world, there is no procedure. Guilt is assessed on the spot, with sentencing dispatched even quicker. Obviously this has terrifying parallels in the real world when various right wing factions combat against hard won democratic safeguards. And unlike our system, when sentencing is based on the absolute letter of the law, Dredd sentences from the hip, as quick as his pistol draw. Often, his judgements carry a personal spin, often poetically correct, yet shockingly horrifying, executing the guilty in a manner that reflects their crimes. This is not a million miles from the desire to castrate rapists – a position that has often been a cause amongst commentators within the redtop press. Appropriately, when Dredd applies poetic interpretation to his final sentencing in the film, it’s not one that should elicit an enthusiastic response from the viewer. At first this felt like a wrong note, an excessive piece of sadism dressed as entertainment. But on reflection, this serves to remind us exactly what system Dredd is an advocate for, and one we must fight against at every opportunity. But the film makers aren’t finished with impressing us just yet. The sentence is passed, with Dredd snarling out the exact nature of the horrifying punishment. The convicted felon doesn’t resist – she accepts, even embraces her fate, flashing a rare smile as a final fuck you to the only big fish in the pool deserving to kill her. Dredd has won, but he never broke her. And her complicity in the torturous nature of her demise has robbed another brutal man of power over her. She died as she lived.
My only criticism of the film is that it does briefly get a bit repetitive in the middle. But it’s not fatal. Also, I had thought they missed a trick by bringing in a new threat to Dredd and Anderson around the half way mark, only for it to be fully countered before the big showdown at the end. Like RETURN OF THE KING, the film’s action sequences peak in the middle. Where can you go after the visual tour-de-force of the battle of Minis Tirith? The third film in the Tolkien saga never recovered and I felt the same about DREDD. The biggest danger feels like it’s played out. But now I think of it, a lack of an effective opposition at the end feels like the point (and this is where I had my waiting-for-the-kettle-to-boil epiphany. If there is a God, the first thing it should do is bless whoever it was that invented tea!). Despite a few hairy moments for both Anderson and Dredd, by the denouement, they have become an unstoppable force. That’s not strictly true, for reasons that cannot be explained without venturing into spoiler territory. But by the time we reach the final showdown, the ending isn’t just obvious… it’s a crushing inevitability. The criminals have the numbers, but they are uncoordinated and undisciplined. You got to hand it to fascistic military/judicial forces, they now how to organise. No, the bad guy cannot beat Dredd. But then she knows it. She’s bored of her entire hateful of existence. Earlier, she passes a comment about taking over the entire cities drug operation. Yet it’s less of a speech than an idly presented afterthought, tossed aside while she’s thinking of more important things like what she’s having for dinner that night. Her ambition is insincere at the very best. Headey plays her as someone worn out by life, wanting to die but perversely not willing to make it easy for herself or the poor bastard trying to finish her. As mentioned above, Dredd is the unknowing perpetrator in Ma Ma’s assisted suicide and it becomes a moment of near kindness. The fact that the film makes her euthanasia the most shocking, yet strangely beautiful scene in the film underscores this.
It’s possible this will fly like bullets over the heads of genre fans just looking for another shoot em up, feeling cheated that the film ends on a poetic note rather than a cathartic orgy of destruction. If that’s what you seek I can refer you back to the 1995 Stallone version. Our new version has as much brain as it has muscle… and who would have thought it… it has a heart too.
DREDD really is a lovingly made, little gem of a film.