It’s somewhat disappointing to enjoy a movie like Dredd - a late arrival to Australia - knowing that it has already failed to make an impact with audiences in the US. Much of this disinterest is no doubt driven by the lingering spectre of the terrible Sylvester Stallone/Rob Schneider Judge Dredd of 1995, but rest assured that Dredd (3D) is definitely not that film, in the same way that Batman Begins isn't Batman Forever.
Earlier this year I lamented the lacklustre nature of the watered-down Total Recall remake, but Dredd responds to that criticism with incendiary rounds blazing. Director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland present a lurid return to the unapologetic, over-the-top ultra-violent movies of the eighties and early nineties. And this time the titular Judge clings to his popular comic book roots, presenting a far more accurate and appealing vision of the character.
Set in a post-cataclysm, largely uninhabitable America, the surviving masses are literally stacked on top of each other in mega city blocks. Crime runs rampant and it up to the Judges - crazily armoured super cops who are judge, jury and executioner all in one - to restore law and order. When a grisly triple murder appears linked to a new drug, slo-mo, (which makes the user experience time at one percent of the normal speed) Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and psychic new recruit Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are sent in to investigate.
Dredd’s world takes a little bit of adjusting to. The opening outdoor chase sequence presents a vision of the future that is perhaps a little too familiar and not quite as ambitious as one might expect. Although the streets are bleak and filthy, the buildings that line them, and the cars that scream past them, would be just as comfortable in the present. Only the looming monolithic skyscrapers in the background serve to remind us of the sci-fi situation. But once Dredd and Anderson find themselves trapped in one of these gigantic structures - dubbed “Pine Trees” and housing 75,000 desperate miscreants - everything changes and we become fully immersed in their dark, foreboding world.
And it should be noted that the bulk of the film is confined to this structure. It really does all boil down to a mission to battle to the top and defeat the drug-producing gang-leader who is pulling all the strings. It’s possible that this confinement is motivated by budget rather than story, but don’t be put off by its deceptive simplicity. Writer Garland continually raises the stakes and brings us enough innovative set pieces to continually ramp up the tension and action. The entire film rockets along at a steady pace and it never feels limited by its claustrophobic surroundings.
But what really keeps the film engaging is the main cast. Karl Urban is thoroughly entertaining as the perpetually scowling, unforgiving and humourless Dredd, never removing his helmet and committing 100% to the gruffness of the role. Urban has copped a lot of Internet flack for the images that revealed his epic frown, but it is perfect in context. It still elicited a few giggles from the audience during the screening, but they were giggles of genuine enjoyment, coupled with anticipation for whatever badass, crazy/violent move he was going to administer next.
I can’t stress enough how energizing it is to see a comic book character in full costume, and fully immersed in the role for the entirety of a movie. I enjoy Batman films more when Batman is on the screen, and sadly he only ever shows up for around 25 minutes of a three hour movie. But Dredd is Dredd all the time and there are fantastic shots of him grimacing in his iconic helmet while flames and explosions are reflected in his visor. Let’s take the Batman anthology further to better express why this film works so well for me. Would you see a Batman film which took place on Robin’s first night on the job and the whole thing was a wildly escalating mission seen from his perspective while Batman was being crazy, badass gruff Batman ALL the time? I totally would see that film and, in a way, that’s the flavour of what we are served up here.
Props also go to Olivia Thirlby who is compelling as rookie Anderson and has an iconic look that I’m hoping will inspire a hell of a lot of cosplay. She’s a sympathetic character and never quite as vulnerable as she initially seems. The techniques used to explore the extent of her psychic prowess are inventive and create some of the more memorable sequences in the film.Similarly, Lena Heady shines as scarred-up gang-leader Ma-Ma. She’s a truly malevolent force and utterly believable as the puppetmaster of a vast criminal empire. Heady scared the shit out of me and its great to see her rise up as a formidable match for Dredd.
Now let’s address the 3D. Both 3D and slow-motion are perennial eye-rollers for the Internet, but both are utilised to perfection here. The slow-mo drug effect reminds me of those YouTube videos were they fire a bullet through a watermelon or sheet of glass (and you will certainly some slo-mo bullets flying). It also produces a sparkling particle effect in the air which fills the cinema thanks to the 3D. When combined with a large action sequence it is transportative and mesmerising and really requires the theatre experience to fully enjoy.
If you’re predisposed to films such as Robocop then I think there’s a lot here to be enjoyed. Dredd sadly does lack the satire of that film, choosing instead to take itself very seriously, but the unrelenting action/sci-fi violence is ever-present. To be honest I found it a little confronting at times. I viewed those films of the eighties with a certain degree of detached innocence/ignorance, but now, being more aware of all the horrible things that happen in the real world, I found myself a little bit more uncomfortable at time. But the film is very much designed to make you feel like that and it’s all part of Anderson’s journey. If you’re prepared for that aspect then Dredd is a film I would very much recommend.
I would love to see a sequel. I’d like to see what happens when the filmmakers break out of their confinement and explore Dredd and Anderson in the context of a larger world. I hope that word-of-mouth at least makes this a hit on DVD and Blu-ray because it left me wanting more. 2012 has been a huge year for comic book movies. Don’t let this one slip by.