Dredd Review By Adam
It has almost been 20 years since director Danny Cannon and star Sylvester Stallone desecrated British comic creation ‘Judge Dredd’ in a film that would serve as template for the bloated, misjudged, big studio productions of the 1990s. It is hard to believe now, but films like Judge Dredd were the reason that Hollywood was originally trepidatious about comic book properties. Often the studios would refuse to take responsibility for poorly conceived comic book adaptations – even when they cast Rob Schneider as a sidekick — and cowardly blame the source material ‘It’s too dark’ or ‘He is no Batman’. Now in 2012 we have a new, faithful, cinematic incarnation of the monosyllabic lawgiver, and this version shows that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the source material: Dredd is one of the year’s purest, most gratifying genre films.
Set in Mega-City One (a sprawling metropolis that houses 800 million people), Dredd follows Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) a member of the Hall of Justice. Dredd is part of a special police force that grinds against the rampant criminality of Mega-City. He has been given the power to arrest, sentence and, if warranted, execute a suspect on the spot. In the role of assessor, Dredd is teamed up with Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie who has demonstrated psychic abilities, and told to show her the ropes. Following his partner’s lead, Dredd heads to a disturbance in Peach Trees, a dilapidated tower block that operates as a slum. Once inside, Dredd and Anderson find themselves up against the drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a vicious psychopath who manufactures the drug ‘Slo-Mo’, a substance that slows down the perception of time. Ma-Ma fought tooth and nail to gain control of Peach Trees and she is not about to let overzealous Judges ruin her dictatorship.
This new interpretation of Judge Dredd is refreshingly episodic. Dredd effectively covers a single day in Judge Dredd’s ongoing war against crime, and we come into the film with our stoic lead fully formed. As a result, all of this film’s character development is placed squarely on Judge Anderson’s shoulders, and this contrast between rigid killing machine and blonde rookie works surprisingly well. While character development is not absent in Dredd, it is undeniably a secondary concern to the action (which, make no mistake, kicks all kinds of arse). In screenwriter Alex Garland’s efficient script, Anderson’s character works as a cipher for the audience. She is often bombarded with information about the world and systems around her, which works a treat as it keeps our head above water in this dense universe and serves a function instead of sounding like dry exposition. Garland’s script is a marvel of world building; he keeps his narrative action-orientated, tight and single-minded, but we constantly get the feeling that something else (often nefarious) is happening just around the corner – Garland’s Mega-City is fully realised and stunningly alive.
Dredd’s biggest point of differentiation to its comic book brethren is its unrelenting violence –this utterly uncompromised film will sell zero Happy Meals. Using the effects of the drug ‘Slo-Mo’ to heighten the action scenes, director Pete Travis often turns Dredd into a ballet of blood – faces explode, skin is flayed and perps are cooked alive. Garland and Travis completely commit to Dredd’s extreme methods and the film unapologetically revels in his brutal efficiency. Dredd’s extremism might turn off a few (who shouldn’t have bought a ticket in the first place), but if you are a fan of the blood-soaked sci-fi films of Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Robocop) you will find this an enjoyably fascist throwback.
Another of the definitive factors in Dredd’s originality is its independent funding. Despite lacking the backing of a major studio, producers Alex Garland, Andrew MacDonald and Allon Reich have managed to craft a superb looking film. A large part of this film’s visual success can be attributed to Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). Dod Mantle shoots Dredd in a vibrant and energetic way that is almost at odds with this world’s drab concrete aesthetic. Utilising the more inventive aspects of Garland’s script — primarily, the effects of Slo-Mo and Anderson’s psychic probing — Dod Mantle creates startling, hallucinogenic images that include exploding faces and violent sexual dreams.
Almost all of the design elements of Dredd are simultaneously futuristic and dilapidated. Unlike Sylvester Stallone’s Versace costumes in the original (seriously), the costumes in Dredd are (sensibly) more riot cop than red carpet. Karl Urban looks the business in Dredd and, unlike his vascular forbear, he keeps his helmet on for the entire running time. The oppressive structure of Peach Trees is a great setting for Travis’s escalating action and Dredd’s level-by-level structure has been compared to recent action hit The Raid, but except for a few contrivances, the films are completely separate entities.
The acting in Dredd is highly serviceable; this film exists in a hyper-reality and the actors acclimatise themselves accordingly. Due to the physical restrictions of Dredd’s apparel, Karl Urban has to act entirely with his chin. Urban channels his inner Clint Eastwood and communicates in a series of growls and scowls. I’m not the biggest fan of Urban; he has been in some phenomenal franchises (LOTR, Bourne, Star Trek) but his headline gigs — Doom, Pathfinder — have left me seriously wanting. I have no such problem with Dredd– this is possibly Urban’s best work. Olivia Thirbly is fantastic as Judge Anderson. Despite her striking looks, Thirbly proves to be far more than eye candy: she adeptly conveys Anderson’s unease at the drastic measures of her profession, and, when needed, kicks serious arse. Lena Headey is effectively feral as Ma-Ma, but more inclusion of her back story (which does exist: in the form of a spin-off comic) would have helped justify her ruthless methods.
While few will confuse Dredd with high art, this is a commendable film – it knows exactly what it is and embraces its nature wholeheartedly. My only gripe is that this film doesn’t contain enough of the biting satire present in the source material and other ultra-violent sci-fi classics. Yet as an exercise in propulsive action filmmaking, Dredd is the balls.