Directed by Pete Travis, 2012.
Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Domhnall Gleeson.
95 mins.

In an overcrowded, crime-ridden futuristic city, two law enforcers – ruthless Judge Dredd and telepathic trainee Anderson – are investigating a number of brutal murders in a monolithic tower block. Before long they find themselves trapped inside, up against a vicious gang leader and drug peddler – known as Ma-Ma – who doesn’t want her secrets getting out…

BRITAIN’S GREATEST COMIC icon is the taciturn, uncompromising Judge Dredd, first published in the pages of 2000AD in 1977. Patrolling the streets of Mega City One, Dredd and his fellow Judges have the power to convict criminals and carry out sentencing immediately – including on-the-spot execution. In over forty years of printed adventures, Dredd has gone up against everything from outlaw cyborgs to rampaging mutants to the embodiment of death – he’s even clashed heads with Batman.

In 1995, Hollywood tried to bring the character to the screen in the form of Sylvester Stallone’s big-budget Judge Dredd; yet the movie was too broad and simplistic, just another futuristic action movie despite some impressive Blade Runner-style visuals.

Two decades later, the lantern-jawed lawman returned to cinemas for another attempt at silver screen success. Conscious of the previous movie’s mistakes, and with a much lower budget, Dredd is a straight-up, no-nonsense action thriller, terse and violent. Laughs are few and far between, dialogue is sparse, and bullets and blood are the order of the day.

Dredd lacks the resources to create a truly immersive sci-fi dystopia, instead using footage of real-life South African shanty towns and enhancing it with bits of CGI and the odd futuristic building or vehicle. The Judges are kitted out with swat-type body armour and comic-accurate helmets, but the rest of the cast look like they are wearing whatever they had on when they turned up to set that day. The result is unconvincing at best, and at worst resembles a fan film.

The plot does well to cope however; like Die Hard, most of the story is contained within one deadly, bad-guy infested skyscraper. Dredd and Anderson move through graffiti-laden corridors and their poverty-stricken inhabitants, always awaiting the next attack from Ma-Ma’s seemingly endless army of thugs/cannon-fodder. Further developments only add to their troubles – their calls for back-up are unanswered, their ammo runs out, and Ma-Ma has a very, very big gun…

The set-up is solid, and Dredd backs this with quality casting. Karl Urban is good for ninety minutes of solid grimacing in the title role, adding an occasional undercurrent of wry amusement and just enough suggestion of affection for his rookie partner. Speaking of whom, Olivia Thirlby perfectly balances wide-eyed naivety and determination as Judge Anderson. She struggles with the role of executioner; one key sequence has her realising the consequences of talking a life, only to turn and see Dredd’s merciless mug staring back at her, reflecting her fears of what she’ll become. Leading the scoundrels is Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma, an effectively sinister performance which contains a savage nature just below an eerily calm surface.

Like Die Hard, most of the story is contained within one deadly, bad-guy infested skyscraper

So far, so good; but the Judge Dredd comics aren’t just action-adventures about an authoritarian future-cop. Writers over the years have turned the strip into great satire, pitching Dredd as the very embodiment of fascism, obsessed with the law, his mask obscuring both his face and his humanity. Throwing the book at anyone who commits the slightest misdemeanour, his heavy-handed punishments are often far worse than the crimes themselves. One memorable issue saw Dredd punish a class of school children – for singing him Happy Birthday too loudly.

Dredd the movie, so keen to be taken seriously, largely avoids such ideas and plays it straight; Urban’s Dredd is alarming because his cold and brutal actions, not his motivation. In the comic he can be viewed as a ludicrous totalitarian caricature or even a villain just as much as a hero – levels that the movie really could have done with.

Equally Judge Dredd’s home turf – Mega City One – is, on paper, civilization gone mad, every imaginable demographic crammed together and the unavoidable lunacy that results. It’s futile ground for social commentary, comedy, and, among the more normal inhabitants, providing the warmth that Dredd himself lacks. Whereas here, it’s just drab and depressing, grim streets and buildings full of drug-dealers and the desperate. There is none of the crazed, anarchic humour of the comic, none of the goofy characters or sci-fi weirdness that make the source material so rich and unique.

Dredd was released in the 3D format, but without the scope for widescreen spectacle, it resorts to showing small-scale images – like flowing water or flying blood – in super-sparkly slow-motion, with the colours turned up intensely. These visuals are incorporated into the plot to show the effects of a new street drug called, conveniently enough, slo-mo; and while it’s pretty enough at first, it quickly grows tiresome, another example of how the 3D gimmick detracts from a film’s narrative.

Stallone’s effort has huge action sequences including flying motorbike chases and giant killer robots, but this version of Dredd makes do with more lo-fi shoot-outs and fisticuffs. The biggest set-piece involves a Gatling gun demolishing an entire level of the building as Ma-Ma decides to forgo any subtlety and wipe out the interfering Judges herself. Said bullet-fest comes half way through, and though exciting would have been better saved for the climax; as it is, the movie ends on a damn squib that looks like the production just ran out of money.

On balance, Dredd is a more successful attempt to adapt the iron-fisted flatfoot to the big screen, but still no home run. Good casting and a tight script really required greater funding – as well as more effort to embrace the full nature of the source material. No problem though; if you want an action-packed, pitch-black sci-fi satire featuring an emotionless policeman, the perfect film has already been made – it’s called RoboCop.

Review by Ulysses Gamma-Hose


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