Jarv Judges Dredd: The Crimes are multiple, and the sentence is…
I’m claiming Dredd for Made in Britain. Yes, technically it was multi-nation produced, and shot mostly in South Africa, but the writer, director and one of the leads are British, and while Mega City One may span the entire East coast of the United States, the original comic, 2000AD was British. So its ours, and that is my final word on the matter.
Obviously, were it rubbish, then I’d be passing the buck furiously to anyone other than us, so the fact that I’m claiming it at all should give an indication as to how this review is going to go. Oh, and I’ve gone insanely picture happy here.
May contain Judgement and extremely mild spoilers below
OK, before the review starts, standard 3D disclaimer time. A bloody plague on the useless format. Not only is it terrible to look at and an excuse for hacks to prod things at the camera, but given that cinemas charge more for the privilege of sitting in uncomfortable seats wearing stupid glasses, they refuse to show a 2D screening and make it as inconvenient as possible to find one. I cannot wait for this fad to pass.
Right, I feel better now.
When I was growing up, our local newsagent refused to stock American comics. He would, however, stock the Beano and 2000AD. So, once a month on a Sunday my old man would come home with the papers and a copy of 2000AD. I would then avidly read it, and despite the satire etc shooting over my head, I loved every single frame. As a direct result of this, Dredd is my geek blind spot, and I tend to get overly upset even thinking about the horrendous Stallone version that managed to rectally violate not just one classic Dredd Story, but took a huge dump all over about 4 of them. Incidentally, I don’t care about the helmet coming off, because you never see Dredd in the comics not in uniform, whereas in a film if he’s at home eating his breakfast or whatever then it would be daft for him to be wearing the helmet.
Having said that, I can confirm that Dredd is an entirely helmeted film. That’s right, there’s no de-helmeting at any stage, and there’s a very simple reason: the film takes place over the course of one working day. This is a Judge on the job, and therefore he’s in full uniform all the time. Simples, eh? This was probably a preemptive strike on the legions of shut in internet losers out there who whine about the slightest detail, but it is essentially a very clever way of shutting them up before the film is even released. Incidentally, this detail really doesn’t matter, but they are an extremely annoying and vocal minority, so probably best to stop them before they start.
The opening of Dredd is stunning. It’s a classic throwback to an 80’s action film, as Dredd (Karl Urban) supplies a voiceover helpfully informing people of the world of 2000AD. In the near future, America managed to nuke the entire planet. The people of the world drew together into the Mega Cities, vast concrete jungles with looming Mega blocks towering over the landscape. Each Mega City is home to 800 million people, and outside the walls, the landscape is the irradiated and otherwise totally arid Cursed Earth. Inside the walls, however, the city is a teeming swamp of crime, with the lone army of Judges ruling by sheer force. They are jury, executioner and Judge. Top Judge is Dredd, an unstoppable and unbendable killing machine, who holds the primacy of the law sacrosanct and will not allow any mitigation or otherwise deviation. Anyway, we see Dredd strapping on his armour and going out to work before an exhilarating chase and plenty of gunplay. Incidentally, within about 5 minutes the body count is mounting up alarmingly and you’re well aware that this is about to be an incredibly violent film.
Picking up Rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant psychic, he has to evaluate her on the job. This is her last throw of the dice, with the Chief Judge describing her as “marginal”. Dredd, on the other hand, has no truck with that, and according to him there’s nothing marginal about it at all, she failed. Still, orders are orders, so he’s taking her out on patrol and even allows her to select the first crime, a messy multiple murder in Peach Trees Block.
Peach Trees is a slum. 200 stories high, it contains some of the worst scum in Mega City One, and is ruled with an insane fist by the deeply psychotic Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), where she manufactures and distributes the drug Slo-Mo. Slo-Mo is not the substance that best explains Zack Snyder, instead by inhaling it through what looks suspiciously similar to a Ventolin inhaler, it alters the perception of the user literally slowing time for them dramatically. It is also quite obviously designed to pander to 3D technology, while having the added bonus of cranking up the violence in the film to insane levels.
On raiding what they believe to be the distribution centre, the two judges capture Kay (Wood Harris) a highly important member of Ma’s criminal team. Ma cannot allow him to leave Peach Trees, so organises a lock down, sealing the judges in and placing a bounty on their heads. The two must fight their way to the top floor to survive, as their lives in the block will be eventually forfeit. Ma, meanwhile, goes to more and more extreme measures to kill the pair of them.
This is a very, very simple film. Basically, it’s all about the action, the violence and setting the world up for any future sequels. Having said that, however, Garland was smart enough to create a self-contained film that provides enough background to the world with an essentially linear story and thereby avoid a painful and boring origin film. Furthermore, there’s no conflict to Dredd: he’s clearly the man in the white hat fighting against the men in the black hats. I find this, essentially, refreshing and it was pleasant to see a funnybook film not crushed under the weight of daddy issues.
On the acting front, Urban is revelatory as Dredd. I honestly think this is a career best performance from him. He’s channelling/ impersonating Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, but given that in part Dredd was based on the iconic San Francisco cop, this is no bad thing. Furthermore, his timing on several lines is absolutely spot on, and while the top part of his face is permanently covered he’s cracked Joe’s sourpuss expression. It is honestly no exaggeration to say he’s nailed the role, and this may be my favourite performance of 2012 so far. If we bother with the Golden Changs this year, then I’m definitely nominating him.
Thirlby is also excellent as Anderson. The script allows her more latitude than Dredd, who is essentially uncomplicated and Thirlby as the unsure Judge on her first day puts in a great turn. Her finest moment, by a long chalk, though is the interrogation sequence about half way through which I won’t spoil, but is highly entertaining in its own way. Headey, also, who I generally think is a crap actress, is fuglied up, but puts in a good turn with a couple of horrifying moments and genuinely seems to relish the more gleefully insane Ma sequences.
On the script front, I’ve already mentioned that Garland pared the story down to absolute basics, but he’s still stuffed in a huge amount of “2000AD touches”. The sequence with the vagrant, for example, could have come straight from the pages of the comic book, and he’s supplied a lot of very fitting Dredd dialogue that Urban growls with relish. Watch particularly for his address over the PA towards the last third of the film, which is a remarkably (and barnstormingly entertaining) apropos Dredd speech.
While Urban’s Dredd is the undoubted star of the film, this isn’t actually a Dredd film. Rather, it’s about Cassandra Anderson. I know that sounds insane, but much of the focus here in the script and the action is on her rather than him, certainly almost all the development we see here is her, and I find this a clever solution to one of the problems inherent in adapting Dredd. He’s so simple, and so unwavering that he works better as a counterpoint to the chaos surrounding him. By focusing on Anderson, the film allows Dredd to get on with his business but gives us a sympathetic window into the action, because let’s face it, as main characters go, Dredd’s a fascist.
Lastly, there’s the violence. Oh my god, the violence. The slo-mo device allows Pete Travis, the director, to indulge in some visceral stuff, and my Christ does he hop on board. The body count here is off the scale, and there’s claret thrown all over the place. Take, for example, Dredd’s showdown with the escaping Perp at the start of the film. We’ve seen this scene done hundreds of times, but what we haven’t seen is the “cop” put a “hot shot” bullet into the guys head causing it to light up like a bulb before exploding all over the place. Or Ma’s initial executions where the three are skinned, pumped full of slo-mo and then tossed off the 200th floor, so we get a lovely vertigo inducing shot of them tumbling to their doom before they splatter all over the lobby. It’s not for the squeamish.
On the downside, and sadly there is a downside, there are several moments of over-egging the pudding. I won’t go into the details here, but there is a serious plot point about two thirds of the way through that’s incredibly unnecessary and detracts from the world Garland has built. It’s a massive mistake and really bugged both Droid and myself when we saw it. Furthermore, there are a few scenes with Anderson’s psychic powers that also are clearly overly earnest, that I also won’t spoil. One in particular is glaringly dumb, being a combination of bad writing and awful camera work that is simply trying too hard to present Anderson as conflicted.
Furthermore, this is an origin film. Not an origin of Dredd, thankfully, but an Origin of Mega City One. As such there’s a palpable feeling that this is begging for a sequel, that they’ve established the world and the rules and are waiting to crack it open with the second film and do something totally epic. In light of this, I really, really, really want to see the Dark Judges in the sequel- and given that it needs to make $40m in the states to get this, it’s over to you Americans. Don’t let us down. Incidentally, I know Garland has been talking about saving the Dark Judges for the third film, but let me give a word of advice here: a trump card is only of use when you play it. If you save it, and it remains unplayed, then it’s essentially worthless. So on that front, Alex, abandon whatever plans you had, and make Dredd 2 the Dark Judges. You don’t need to go for Necropolis (which I’m not sure would work anyway), but get them on the screen.
Overall, while not perfect, Dredd was much better than I feared it would be, even if it wasn’t quite as good as I hoped. As a lean action film there’s plenty to recommend here, even lots to love, and that turn by Urban deserves another run out. While not a perfect Dredd film, it’s certainly a good enough piece of violent cinema for me, and furthermore is as good an introduction to Mega City One as could realistically be done. I do recommend this, to such an extent that I’m even considering going again myself, and that’s unheard of.
If the sequel does happen, by the way, I expect to see Alex Garland directing it. Don’t let me down, Yanks, this is a cracking little simple and straightforward action movie with no little balls and deserves some love.
You have been judged, Dredd, and you are free to go.