Director: Pete Travis
Producer: Alex Garland, Adrew McDonald, Allon Reic
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey
“You have been judged. The sentence is death.”
Some things really shouldn’t be over analysed for fear of spoiling what is intended to be a straight forward experience of unadulterated entertainment. And Dredd, a depressingly rare offering of action aimed squarely at adults, is certainly one of those times. It is a dark and thrilling offering of pulp sci-fi executed with a lot of style and a heavy punch – everything that should be expected of something inspired by the classic 2000AD comic. Though undeniably a brutal slug-fest at heart, there is a surprising amount of brains behind the simple narrative, and a lot of artistic flair too. Despite resorting to a few frustrating action conventions and experiencing the odd lull here and there, it fully deserves to be talked about with nothing but great enthusiasm.
For the 2000AD officianado’s it may be disappointing to learn that this is not a straight recreation of the familiar world of Mega City 1. The traditionally dark and larger than life comical style has been significantly toned down, and many key staples entirely removed. This is presumably a conscious effort born out of the harsh lessons learnt by the earlier (god forsaken) attempt to bring Dredd to the big screen. The city has been re-imagined in a much more realistic style, with great emphasis placed on the vast slums and council estate style tower blocks, rather than the ultra-futuristic constructs and fantastical features seen in the comic. The influence of District 9 and its striking combination of science fiction and present day socioeconomic issues can clearly be felt, even if it doesn’t really go beyond the surface level. The eccentric and colourful denizens have also been toned down to resemble modern day slum dwellers and street gangsters rather than the twisted freaks and mechanically enhanced villains who traditionally plagued Dredd. At risk of upsetting the fans these significant changes represent a brave move but the film makers consistently demonstrate a canny intuition for knowing exactly what to change and what not to change in order to retain the underlying sense that this is the same world. Dredd himself is brought to life perfectly by Karl Urban with just the right the balance of miserable reserve backed up by great world weariness and sheer menace. Despite changes to his appearance he sports a perfect recreation of the iconic helmet and is forced to communicate with the audience entirely through the use of a clenching, grimacing chin. Where the costume department have been clever is recognising that the skin tight leather and ridiculously sized ornaments of the pseudo-fascist Judge outfits may work on paper but just aren’t practical in a realistic world. Instead Dredd is clad a far more intimidating set of bulky and battle worn body armour, and looks all the more intimidating for it. Only the law-master motor bike comes across as a little silly looking.
Another ingenious decision was to reign the story in as far as possible and resist the temptations offered by an expansive universe. The confined environment forces more effort to be put into introducing the characters and fleshing them out in detail, rather than being lost in a messy and time consuming theme park tour of Mega City 1. As far as it goes the story is essentially a training day assignment for the new and suspect rookie Anderson, as she follows in the footsteps of the difficult to impress Dredd. Unsurprisingly things do not go smoothly and the duo soon find themselves battling the psychotic Ma Ma’s organised block gang. Such simplicity may be frustrating for long time fans expecting to see all of their favorite perps and Judges but this is undoubtedly the beginning of a new story and the foundations need to be settled before getting too ambitious. It plays just as much to those unfamiliar with the character as much as it winks at those who are, giving a couple of tantilising glimpses of the wider world which definitely wet the appetite for something on a bigger scale.
The most pleasant surprise is the entirely unexpected level of dynamic direction which at times – particularly during the scenes mixing drug use with intense violence – leaves you slack jawed. Generally the cinematography works wonders despite the often grey and barren environments of what is essentially a big council estate, and always somehow manage to find a new and innovative way of thrusting the judges into scenes of epic lighting. Through imaginative use of Dredds law-giver firearm and its wide variety of arsenal, there is a constant slew of large scale destruction and illuminating fireworks allowing for plenty of striking and memorable scenes of the anti hero which could have been drawn straight from the panels of 2000AD. Emanating throughout is a strong sense of love for the character from all involved and a desire to do him some justice.
The action is fast paced and brutally violent; perhaps too violent for some, but definitely befitting the source material. Some over the top deaths are clearly being played for cheap laughs and there is always a disturbing attention to anatomical detail during the many super slow-motion scenes but sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy some creative exploitation gore. Yet there is a strange sense – even after a prolonged brain rattling sequence with a heavy gun – that there was perhaps room for the director to let loose just a little more. The last thing anyone could have expected of a Judge Dredd film is that it is a relatively restrained affair.
The wide range of influences which Dredd draws upon are there for all to see. It harks back to the sparse and lo-fi feel of the classic 70s and 80s cult action films such as Robocop, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York (all which were themselves influenced by 2000AD) – there is even a satisfying homage to the Warriors. After years in the wilderness of increasingly daft 12A’s it comes as a breath of fresh air and the action genre seems to be finally going through a renaissance of sorts, as all of the kids brought up during the era have come of age and are taking up the directorial reigns. This is a proper 18 rated film of the old school, and its about time that someone dropped the attempts to draw in a wider audience for ticket sales. Dredd should do well enough to merit sequels, but more importantly its mature approach should ensure longevity and a similar cult status earned by its older relatives.