On Dredd

Featuring Karl Urban (The Chronicles of RiddickDoomThe Bourne SurpremacyThe Lord of the Rings trilogyXena: Warrior Princess), Dredd is an action film based on the 2000 AD comic strip Judge Dredd and its eponymous character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. It is unrelated to the awful Judge Dredd film, as a new film adaptation had been considered. According to the Adventures in Text article, “Review: Judge Dredd (1995) vs Dredd (2012)“:

Remakes seem very in fashion in recent years, and Dredd is but one of many. As is usual for me, I only tend to write reviews when I feel I have something particular to say about a piece of fiction (whether it is on screen or page).

I was late to the Dredd train, sadly missing it on the big screen and only picking it up when I saw it randomly on sale in the store. Once I got it home, I thought I’d amuse myself by watching the previous incarnation of the character on screen – Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone as the titular character – followed by the newer movie. It turned out to be an interesting contrast; they are very different movies.

(Note: I don’t read the 2000 AD comics that the character of Dredd is originally from, so won’t compare to the original source much. I’ll stick to what I know of the comics – the broad strokes – and leave the details to those who know more about that side of things than me.)

Honestly, the two movies are so different that it is hard to compare them. I enjoyed them both a lot, but for very different reasons. Could I pick a favourite? Probably not!

When I think about comparing these two movies, I have to say that it’s easier to say what was the same than what was different. The main character – the inimical and intimidating Judge Dredd – is there, his uniform and equipment are similar, it’s set in a city of the same name, and there’s an important relationship with a female Judge in it. Beyond those things, however, they are almost completely different.

Let’s start with the big picture. They are both action flicks, but where Judge Dredd injects humour to lighten the load, Dredd is quite prepared to makes friends with the bloody dark and take you down into it. The 1995 movie is much more what I tend to refer to as an action romp, the kind you go into knowing you’re going to be entertained and probably grinning half the time. The 2012 movie, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything as light as entertainment: it’s gritty, violent, and doesn’t shy away from the downright nastiness and ruthlessness of the world the Dredd is trying to police.

Personally, I don’t see either of these things as more or less than the other: the movies have very different tones and seem to have set out to be very different beasts.

The plot of the movies couldn’t be more different, too. The scope is vastly different (and here I’m going to get very spoilery – you have been warned).

In Judge Dredd, the plot is so broad that it threatens the stability and order of the entire city/metropolis/megapolis (it’s the size of a small country), with world-shaping ramifications. There are secrets and twists in the plot, peeling back layers of conspiracy to reveal villains in places they’re not supposed to be. It also delves deeply into the main character’s background, raising (and answering) fundamental questions about who Dredd is and where he came from.

Dredd himself goes on a sweeping character arc, as he has to deal with being stripped of his Judge-ship (yes, that is a word, shh) and exiled from the city he dedicated his life to protecting and serving. He also has to deal with the ramifications of the revelations about his origin, a close personal betrayal, and the unbending of the stick up his ass. Long story short: he’s a changed character by the end of the movie.

Dredd, on the other hand, has a much narrower focus. We’re shown the situation in Mega-City through the lens of a single residential building. Granted, it’s a huge building, but almost the entire movie occurs within its walls. The villain is known from the start, there aren’t any real surprises as far as motives go (only a pretty minor betrayal, shown as an instance of corruption), and the plot is much more of a straight line compared to Judge Dredd‘s squiggling journey.

Dredd is a concentrated look at what daily life is like for these Judges, and shows just how dangerous and almost futile their position is. It doesn’t have anything like the breadth of vision of the earlier movie, and it doesn’t seem to need it.

With such a focussed plot, Karl Urban’s character journey can’t go anywhere near the heights and troughs that Stalone’s Dredd did. Instead, it’s quite the opposite: Urban’s Dredd is pretty much the same man walking out of the movie as he was going in. You don’t learn much about him or his background; you learn about what a badass he is and he has a shift of opinion about the rookie he’s mentoring through the war zone they’re trapped in, but that’s about it.

Normally, this would bother me (the lack of character arc is a big problem for me in Kill Bill). In this case, though, it doesn’t. It fits the movie, and it fits the kind of character that Dredd is. Anderson, Dredd’s rookie companion, goes through a metamorphosis and she has a distinct character arc, so the movie isn’t devoid of growth. It’s through the lens of her that we see into Dredd and it’s because of her that he shows some loosening of his grimness at the end.

For me, Dredd felt like the pilot to a new TV series. And let me tell you, I’d watch the shit out of that show. The movie was a slice of life, a glimpse into a huge world with a lot of scope and story just waiting for someone to film and give us. Don’t get me wrong: it was a complete story in itself, but I was definitely left with an enthusiasm for more.

Judge Dredd was definitely a movie in scope and story. The story packed in there was enough for a TV show to spend a season or two unpeeling for us. It didn’t leave a lot of room for more to follow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just different.

Earlier, I mentioned that both movies involve a relationship with a female Judge. Even this manages to be a difference between the movies.

In Judge Dredd, that relationship winds up becoming romantic (at the very, very end). The woman in question, Hershey, is a fully-qualified and battle-proven Judge, very much on a par with Dredd. It works because of the journey that Dredd has gone through by that point, both in himself and with Hershey.

In Dredd, the female Judge is the rookie he’s escorting for her first day on the streets (Anderson). The dynamic between them is quite different to that between other-Dredd and Hershey: here, he’s in the role of mentor, superior to Anderson, and she is established early on as a sub-par Judge recruit, promoted to the streets on the merits of the psychic abilities she has. Through the movie, Dredd moves from dark pessimism about her ability to survive the day to grudging respect, but at no point does it sniff anywhere near romance (or lust).

I found the lack of romance a relief. The default behaviour of movies to demand a romantic plot is tiresome, particularly action movies where the hero has to get the girl as if he needs that to be truly manly. Sometimes it fits the feel and plot of the movie, sometimes it’s a natural outcome for the characters, and that’s all good. But too often, it is shoehorned in as an afterthought. It wouldn’t have fit in Dredd for many reasons, and they didn’t force it. I applaud this decision. (I had the same reaction to the end of Pacific Rim for the same reason.)

I suppose you can’t talk about Judge Dredd and not mention the helmet. I remember when the 1995 movie came out, and the outcry from comic fans because Stalone removes the iconic helmet (and he’s without it for a lengthy swathe of the story). Apparently, this Does Not Happen Ever in the comics. I’m sure the fans were greatly relieved that Urban didn’t remove the helmet once, not even a glimpse of the man beneath the mantle of Judge beyond his constantly down-turned mouth.

It’s a big metaphor about the character of Dredd and what the movies did with him, but I’ve already talked about the respective character arcs, so I won’t hammer it again. You get the idea.

I guess I should talk about the cinematography of the movies, too. I’m no film technician or expert, so this will be brief, but even my amateur eyes noticed a few things worth mentioning.

In Judge Dredd, the breadth of the story is such that the visuals and aesthetic have a wide range, from scifi city and hover-bikes, to desert and dust, to rusted chains and a hovel in a cave. It’s pretty standard 90s scifi fare.

In Dredd, the focus is much narrower but that doesn’t make the visuals any less stunning. In fact, the aesthetic of the movie seems more crafted for the world it’s depicting and does a lot more work than the visuals in the 1995 movie.

It feels like they worked even harder to make the most of what was a fairly limited canvas, and you definitely get the gritty, grubby, hard atmosphere that is life in Mega-City. In comparison, the slow motion glimpses of the Slo-Mo drugged state are oddly terrifying and beautiful, diamonds against a dirty backdrop. Which is, of course, why that drug is so popular.

I find it curious that the same source material has produced such different movies. I haven’t even got to mention the comedic element that Rob Schneider brought to Judge Dredd, or the darkness of Lena Headey (of Game of Thrones fame) as Ma Ma in Dredd.

Even after all this consideration, I can’t pick a favourite from the two; it comes down to what mood I’m in. I still hope that they make a sequel to Dredd, though. I think there’s more (darkness and) fun to be had there.

 

According to the NPR review:

The prestige film festivals were abuzz this month with independent films and possible awards contenders, but for movies opening wide, September is traditionally a dump month — a fallow time between the summer and Oscar season when studios release films expected to underperform.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but given its vital stats, you wouldn’t be faulted for casting a wary eye at Dredd, a 3-D actioner set in a ruined urban dystopia and arguably better suited to a summer release. Add to the red flags that this film is actually the second attempt at adapting the long-running British comic about a law-enforcement officer with the power of judge, jury and executioner — 1995’s Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone, was a critical and financial disappointment — and the smart money would say avoid this iteration.

Forget the timing, and forget the overstuffed, schlocktastic Stallone movie. (Unless you’d like to relive some truly spectacular line readings.) Not only is Dredd a smart bit of September counterprogramming, it’s a gleefully audacious, visceral, near-perfect action movie.

In Mega-City One, a vast and decaying metropolis stretching from Boston to D.C., Dredd (Karl Urban, the Bones McCoy in the latest Star Trek film) patrols the streets as a member of the Judges, a corps of individuals equally expert in combat and the law. As the last remaining political authority of a megalopolis in chaos, the Judges arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot with a grim and practiced efficiency.

Dredd represents the paragon of that system, workmanlike in his relentless pursuit of justice and as unbending as the law he enforces. In an especially bloody opening that feels all too routine, Dredd pursues and dispatches a murderous criminal who, at the last minute, takes a civilian hostage.

“Negotiation’s over,” Dredd growls, before applying a creative solution to the problem. Stylized violence abounds that would seem a better fit for a B-movie, were each act of brutality not rendered with horrifying and at times visually stunning specificity that’s only enhanced by 3-D.

Watching an unstoppable force kick ass and deliver surprisingly effective one-liners would make for a rousing if ultimately limited experience; wisely, the film ups the stakes by pairing its merciless and impenetrable protagonist with an earnest rookie in need of evaluation. Dredd’s superior asks him to ignore that Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), trained but untested in the field, didn’t quite pass the necessary tests to become a Judge — the radiation on the city’s outskirts has mutated her, though fortunately the result was valuable psychic powers rather than a third or fourth arm.

Writer Alex Garland, who penned the sci-fi thriller 28 Days Later and the more personal Never Let Me Go, resists the impulse to overload on fan-service mythology, instead presenting Dredd‘s complex and potentially overwhelming source material through the sharp lens of a day-in-the-life story.

Dredd and Anderson respond to a triple homicide at Peach Trees, one of the city’s massive housing complexes, where they pick up the trail of a new drug called Slo-Mo, which makes users feel as if time is passing at a tiny fraction of its normal rate. When Peach Trees’ ruthless gang boss Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) discovers them snooping around her block, she shuts down the building and invites its 75,000 inhabitants to kill the Judges if they want to go outside again.

Dredd doesn’t blink at a death sentence — or if he does, the formidable helmet covering half his face doesn’t show it. (The hat makes for some impressive nose-down acting from Urban.) He keeps calm angry and carries on, a superhero upholding society’s status quo without a society left to save. That the world is crumbling around him makes little difference to Dredd — he enforces the law and continues to drill Anderson as they try to fight their way out.

Ma-Ma’s thugs constantly challenge the Judges, making their dangerous situation increasingly more desperate, and director Pete Travis takes full advantage of the claustrophobic halls of the tenement, staging muscular and kinetic action sequences that eschew post-production computer effects. Scenes involving Slo-Mo, especially, are dazzlingly realized in 3-D by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; while extreme in its violence, Dredd even portrays blood spatter with graceful lyricism.

While Dredd himself is mostly a conundrum, Urban brings nuance to the character, infusing him with a bestial but purposeful physicality and giving him a harsh voice that would beat Batman’s to a pulp. As Anderson, Thirlby grounds the film emotionally; the stakes for her are higher than just her own life, as she experiences for the first time the realities and costs of the job.

There’s a cynical way to look at Dredd, if it’s successful: proof for Hollywood that eventually any property can be made to work. But that would miss the point entirely. Dredd works because it’s an action flick with wide appeal that takes risks it doesn’t need to — in its delightfully off-putting violence and daring style — and those choices pay off in a singular and exhilarating movie experience. It’s savage, beautiful and loads of fun.

 

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