For many, the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie was perhaps their first and only exposure to the character of Judge Dredd. Originally created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra for British comic book 2000AD in 1977, Dredd had garnered a loyal cult following through the years, but the Stallone film brought the character to the attention of a much wider audience, particularly in America. While that movie had much to applaud from a technical and visual point of view, it was ultimately crippled by poor scripting and a lead actor who clearly didn't understand the character he was playing. Audience reception was tepid and longtime fans were left disappointed, fearing the film's failure would put pay to any further big screen outings for the character. As a long time fan of the comic book myself, I was itching to see the world of Judge Dredd brought to life once again. Now, 17 years on from the Stallone movie, we have Dredd.
In an irradiated future wasteland on the east coast of North America lies Mega City One; a sprawling, crime-ridden metropolis containing 800 million residents. The only order in the chaos are the Judges; a police force who possess the combined powers of judge, jury, and executioner. During a routine shift, Mega City One's most feared lawman, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), is tasked by the Chief Judge with evaluating rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). When the pair investigate a reported homicide at "Peach Trees", one of the vast tower blocks in the city, they encounter Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless drug lord who controls not only the block but also the supply of "Slo-Mo", a new drug which slows the user's perception of time to 1% of normal.
From the get go, it's clear that this new adaptation is much closer in spirit to the original comic book than the 1995 film was. Eschewing elaborate sets and special effects in favour of mood, character and visceral action, it's a far more satisfying and rounded film. I sense the filmmakers were operating on a "keep it simple" ethos for Dredd. The set up is quick, the plot kept tight and fairly linear. A limited budget means everything is kept comparatively small scale, so many of the comic book's more outlandish and futuristic trappings are left out. However, the budgetary constraints actually aid the film rather than hinder it, I think. A larger world is suggested and teased (which I hope they will get to explore in sequels), but the focus is kept on the story. This is a much grittier, visceral, more grounded take on Dredd. Even the costume, which was criticised by some short-sighted fans as being too far removed from the comic book version, is utilitarian and functional - more like the kind of thing a real motorcycle or riot cop would wear. Similarly, the Lawmaster motorcycles the Judges use look functional rather than overly futuristic or fantastical.
Writer Alex Garland's script is taught, lean and, like the comic book, shot through with a dose of black humour. Comic book and sci-fi elements aside, Dredd is essentially a straight forward action movie set primarily in a single location, much like Die Hard or Assault on Precinct 13. Indeed, the movie has a definite 1980s action movie vibe. Interestingly, I have read reviews that compare Dredd to the recent Indonesian film The Raid (2011). Though I've yet to see that movie, their plots do sound spookily similar, however it should be noted that Dredd's script was finished in 2008 and the movie was in production before The Raid was made.
Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) does a solid job. Everything looks suitably grungy and the use of real sets and locations really helps to ground the film. Action sequences are refreshingly devoid of the machine gun editing and overly slick fight choreography seen in most modern genre movies, which adds to the old school action movie feel. Deep focus is used to extremely good effect, with many shots evoking the look of comic book panels. There are also some very nice uses of extreme slow motion whenever a character uses the "Slo-Mo" drug. Some surreal and striking imagery results from these sequences, but the effect is thankfully not overused. At this point, I should mention that I saw this film in 3D, though not by choice (the number of theaters in the UK showing Dredd in 2D is disappointingly small). While the technology is used to good effect in a few places (most notably the "Slo-Mo" sequences), I feel the movie would work just as well, if not better, in 2D.
I can't praise Karl Urban enough in this film. Clearly, he is a man who did his homework before taking on the role. Dredd is a tough character to play as he's essentially one-note and emotionless. Moreover, a gutsy and admirable decision by Urban and the filmmakers to keep Dredd's helmet on throughout the entire film and give him relatively little dialogue means that he often has to rely on sheer physicality and some exemplary chin work. Vocally, Urban gives Dredd a slight Clint Eastwood tone, which seems apt given that the character's creators were inspired by Dirty Harry. Evidently, both Urban and the writers understand that what makes the character of Dredd so interesting is that he's essentially a fascist hero. He IS the law - faceless, unflinching, incorruptible. You both love and hate him. The 1995 movie missed this point entirely, so I was delighted to see that no attempt is made here to round off the character or give him an emotional arc. Olivia Thirlby is impressive as Anderson. She provides the heart and emotional core for the film and makes a great counter point to Dredd. Lena Headey is equally impressive, clearly relishing her villainous role as Ma-Ma. She plays her with a suitably ruthless intensity and keeps the scenery chewing to a minimum. The supporting cast all deliver good performances. As a fan of the TV show The Wire, I was pleased to see Wood "Avon Barksdale" Harris get a sizable role as Ma-Ma's top henchman, Kay.
The score by Paul Leonard-Morgan is, for the most part, highly effective and at times quite inventive. Pulsating industrial and electronic beats drive the film's action sequences well. I feel the guitars could've been dialed down a little, though - with the thundering guitars on top of the explosive foley work, the movie is deafeningly loud at times. Adding to the overall 1980s action movie sensibility, some of the musical passages are evocative of early John Carpenter scores. For me, these moments are when the score is at its most impressive and effective.
A film that kept springing into my mind while watching Dredd is Robocop (1987). It's widely known that the filmmakers were heavily influenced by the Judge Dredd comic. Aside from the obvious story and character parallels, an early design for Robocop's helmet was extremely close to Dredd's iconic headgear. They even copied Dredd's penchant for calling criminals "Creep." In a neat piece of cyclical influence, Dredd has some definite echoes of Paul Verhoeven's movie. For starters, the way Mega City One is depicted is very reminiscent of Robocop's Old Detroit. Then there's the violence. Dredd is one of the most extravagantly brutal action movies I've seen in some time - Verhoeven levels of gore are thrown at the screen. If those similarities weren't enough, at one point in the film, Dredd even utters the words "You have 10 seconds to comply."
One thing Robocop had, that I'd like to have seen more of in Dredd, is satire. It's such a huge part of the comic book and I felt they didn't push that angle enough in the movie. That really is the crux of Dredd's main problem: they just don't take it far enough. It all feels a bit safe. I sincerely hope this film makes enough money to green-light a sequel (or sequels) so the filmmakers get the chance to explore more of Dredd's world and introduce more aspects, ideas and characters from the comic books.
So, is this the Judge Dredd movie fans have been waiting for? Almost. It's an enjoyable, well made, faithful adaptation, but it doesn't quite reach it's potential. It's a damn good start though, and it certainly eclipses the 1995 version. Unashamedly brutal and visceral, Dredd is a solid, entertaining and occasionally impressive film that will please existing fans and should create a lot of new ones.
3.5 / 5
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About the reviewer
Simon Lee Tranter (Creamtrumpet)
May 8, 2009
Aug 30, 2013 01:07 AM UTC
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