In a nuclear ravaged future, closed-off ‘Megacities’ span huge distances and are over populated to tipping point. Policing Megacity 1 are The Judges, and the letter of the law stops with them. Carrying out a daylong appraisal of psychic rookie, Judge Anderson, Judge Dredd is called upon to investigate three brutal homicides in a ‘megablock’ of apartments. Unfortunately this vast building is the manufacturing base of the new drug, slow-mo, and is the territory of Mama and her gang. Locking the entire building down until The Judges are dealt with, Dredd and Anderson must fight for their survival and see that justice is served.
It’s been thirty-five years since the creation of Judge Dredd in the pages of British sci-fi comic, 2000AD, and seventeen years since the fan-baiting, Sylvester Stallone adaptation of the 90s. That’s a long time to wait to let the stink air out of a franchise so that a better film can be made from the rich source material, so the question now must be, was it worth the wait?
It most certainly was, though it has to be said, Dredd may not entirely be the film you’re expecting it to be.
The most obvious comparison to its comicbook counterpart from the get-go is the visual representation of the future that it inhabits. Gone are the crushed together cyber-punk high-rises and flying bikes and in come the impossibly complex highways, filthy shantytowns, strategically placed ‘megablocks’ and grounded vehicles. Think less Bladerunner, more the inbred child of Akira and District 9. Though this may serve to put off some long-serving fans, for everyone else it should ground the reality of the world into a heightened yet totally believable possible future from where we currently stand and it also doesn’t hurt that it’s all photo realistic, so ultimately buyable.
More importantly though, with this and every adaptation, is the fact that the essential spirit remains intact. Dredd is a hard-bitten, black and white, fascistic character that adheres to the letter of the law. He never takes off his helmet because he doesn’t need to, he doesn’t show emotion, he doesn’t have inner struggles he just dishes out justice that is as appropriately brutal as it needs to be. This may not seem like an ideal candidate to base a film around, and indeed left to his own devices in a feature, it may come off as entirely too two-dimensional, which is why writer, Alex Garland, made the inspired choice of having two leads, the impressionable and vulnerable Judge Anderson working as a perfect counterpoint to Dredd’s bluntness.
The two roles are performed with pitch perfection by the talented character actors, Karl Urban (The Lord of The Rings, Star Trek) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno, The Wackness). It’s been said by the series creators that Dredd’s character is largely based on Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, and nowhere is that more obvious than in this adaptation, Urban channelling Eastwood through and through, but that signature scowl never once leaving his face. Lena Headey (300, Game of Thrones) too comes off well, cutting loose as the extremely villainous Mama.
Addressing another inevitable comparison, action genre fans are probably aware that an excellent film called The Raid was released earlier in the year, which sports almost exactly the same storyline. Cops are trapped in an apartment block, doing all they can to stave off the brutal onslaught of a drugs gang. This is just one of those unfortunate coincidences that must have had both parties kicking themselves when made aware of the other project, but they needn’t have worried too much. Sure, the basic premise IS the same, and both are unrelentingly violent, so much so that both have earned an 18 certificate (R in the states), but their feels are totally different.
Where The Raid is a breakneck, martial arts extravaganza, Dredd is a much more stylish affair, ramping up the tension by placing the characters in situations where shooting your way out isn’t always an option. The style of action is a different animal too, surprisingly, Dredd isn’t as gratuitous as one might expect, its action referring more to military precision over showiness. If two bullets to the head will get the job done, then two bullets to the head it is.
As well as Alex Garland making some brave decisions, director, Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and the producers showed gusto and balls by daring to do a blockbuster level film aimed squarely at a grown-up audience, as well as only giving us the barebones backstory of the world and characters, just enough to have us get along with the presented story, for example, the entire Dredd reality is explained to us in a one-minute-long intro. Dialling back unnecessary exposition is a rare thing in cinema these days. They also went to efforts to make the 3D have a point, the colour and 3D elements really amping up the experience when the ‘slow-mo’ drug is in use, in fact the cinematography in general has clearly had a lot of thought put in to it, bringing the entire production up several notches.
Dredd is a smart, brutal, great looking, narratively lean sci-fi adventure that NEEDS to be embraced by the fanboy community and general public alike, not only so they fast track a sequel and explore the wealth of mythology available from the Judge Dredd comics, but also to show the studios that it’s worth their time and money to make big films for a demographic beyond teenagers. Go see it now!
B+ grade – for originality
B+ grade – for storytelling
B+ grade – for visuals
A- grade – for action
A- grade – for acting
Overall grade A-
Dredd is currently on release in the UK and is released in the US from September 21st.