Dredd is the second attempt to make a movie from the incredibly enduring 2000AD comic strip, Judge Dredd. The last attempt, with Sylvester Stallone in the title role, was such a smouldering pile of crap that I refuse to say any more about it. Does the new version make up for that? Actually, yes it does.
Dredd is the story of a future Earth where nuclear holocaust has reduced the vast majority of the planet to radioactive wastelands full of mutants, generally referred to as The Cursed Earth. The surviving, unaffected members of humanity live in massive, sprawling cities that cover thousands of square miles, called Mega-Cities. The biggest of these, covering the vast majority of the east coast of the US and home to some 800 million people, is Mega-City One. Most people live in Blocks, mega structures of some 200 stories each. As you can imagine, people crammed in those kind of numbers into that kind of space means crime and violence are everyday dangers. The only line between the people and utter chaos are the men and women of the Hall of Justice, known as Judges. They are judge, jury and executioner, dispensing justice and sentence wherever they go. Of all the Judges, Judge Dredd is the Judgiest. An absolute law man, with a perfect working knowledge of every aspect of Mega-City One’s fascist and brutal justice code and a black and white eye for resolution.
This is a world and a society that has grown incredible detail over the decades, so to tackle the subject in a single 90 minute film is daunting, to say the least. The makers of this film, however, were smart and, after some opening sequences through Mega-City One, they locked two judges in one block and the rest of the film played out there. It’s the story of one particular crime boss, known as Ma Ma, and her control of the new drug Slo-Mo. When you take Slo-Mo, you perceive the world as passing at 1% its normal speed, which gives the filmmakers an excuse for some awesome and beautiful super slo-mo sequences. Also some truly brutal ones, but we’ll get to that.
Judge Dredd is saddled with a new rookie judge, Anderson. The rookie failed her test to become a judge, but only just. She does, however, have a pretty powerful psychic ability and the Chief Judge tasks Dredd with taking her out for a day’s assessment to see if the slight fail can be ignored if Anderson’s psychic abilities prove her to be a good judge on the streets. On investigating a triple homicide in Peach Trees Block, they find themselves trapped in Ma Ma’s web and the crime boss seals off the block with war protocols and orders everyone inside to find and kill the judges. Thus begins a Die Hard-esque fight for survival while Dredd and Anderson try to stay alive and dispense justice.
Seeing as I’ve been a fan of Judge Dredd since before my age hit double figures, I was scared about how faithful to the comics this film would be. I have to say, they did a pretty bang-on job. I’ll list quickly a handful of things that deviated from the comics which I wasn’t so happy about. The Lawmaster bikes the judges use looked very different and I didn’t care for that change (though the Lawgiver guns were excellent). The appearance of Mega-City One was quite well done, but there weren’t nearly enough blocks and roads and other signs of density. When we got big aerial shots of the city, the blocks were far too spread apart and that killed what was, to me, one of the best and most horrible aspects of Mega-City One, being the absolutely crammed nature of the city with massive highways criss-crossing the bristling blocks, hundreds of feet in the air. But these are small gripes.
My one main gripe about a change from the comics was around Judge Anderson. In the comics, Anderson of Psi-Division is the best and most powerfully psychic judge in the division. In the film, there was no Psi-Division and Anderson was painted as a mutie, who was lucky enough to have a strong psychic mutation and none of the weird and horrifying physical disfigurements normally associated with denizens of the Cursed Earth. Within the comics, psionics and mutants are not the same thing, and it bothered me that they went that way in the film. And it was also a shame that there’s no actual Psi-Division in the film version, as that reduces by a great deal the stories that can be explored from the comic book’s history.
Anyway, on with the film. As the friend I went with said, “That was the most violent hour and half I’ve ever sat through!” And she’s right. The comic books are very violent, but, being comic books, there’s a certain remove from the actuality of what’s going on. When that is translated into a live-action film, with an R rating and no holds barred on showing what’s happening, the violence is sudden and brutal and unrelenting. But it’s a perfect example of violence in context. The film was far better for it. A place like Mega-City One is a very violent environment, where death and brutality are around every corner, every minute of every day. Life is cheap. That’s explored a lot in the comic books and the film doesn’t shy away from it. Bodies dropped from great heights with realistic impacts, shoot-outs with realistic injuries and so on, often shot in super slo-mo due to the nature of the drug in the story, makes from some very confronting viewing. But it also makes for a strong correlation between comic book and film. When you see someone getting shot in the face in super slo-mo, you’re seeing a filmic version of the single frame in a comic book where the bullet hits its target. As a homage to the style of 2000AD, I enjoyed the way this film was made.
The story itself was pretty much by the numbers. There were no sudden twists and turns, no surprises. The story played out in a fairly linear way and, while we could never be sure exactly who might survive and who might not, the film was more spectacle than deep narrative. The real narrative lay in the place, the people, the situation itself, not in how it played out. As a film, that works just fine when taken for what it is, but it did mean the film felt more like the pilot for a TV series than a standalone movie. And, in all honesty, if they made this into a series, with the production values of this film, I would be one happy monkey.
Dredd doesn’t explore deeply the nature of its dystopian future, which is a shame, but it shows it clearly. It lacks the depth and richness of social commentary it could have had, but it is a perfect example of a genre film. Gritty, relentlessly violent and realistic, this is simply a drug bust gone ballistic set in Mega-City One and it’s brilliant for that. I just hope it’s the first of many films and the subject matter can get deeper and more interesting with subsequent ventures.