After what seems like an age since the original announcement, finally the new Judge Dredd film, named simply ‘Dredd‘, has hit UK cinemas.
Was it worth the wait? For me, definitely, yes.
Now I’m not a life long Judge Dredd fan and can’t ever remember reading an issue of 2000AD but, nonetheless, I am fairly familiar with Joe Dredd and Mega-City One. Most of my knowledge comes from playing the pen and paper RPG and, subsequently, the Big Finish full cast audio plays. Oh, and there’s the Stallone film, too, but fortunately I’ve all but expunged that from my memory banks!
The first thing you’ll notice about this new film is that they’ve radically changed the look of Mega-City One and its inhabitants. Far from the dense, colourful, multi-leveled look prevalent in the comics, this big screen city is a flat, grey ocean of mostly low-rise buildings with largely spaced out mega blocks occasionally jutting forth. Apart from the odd Justice Department drone, all traffic is very much on ground level. This is city that could exist now, just with urban decay turned up one small notch. It is very deliberately not visually exciting. This is a bleak environment, the same sort of five minutes into the future that Robocop gave us.
Also gone are the ‘safe’ swear words that are so familiar in many science fiction series (such as ‘fragging’, ‘fracking’ and Dredd’s ‘drokk’ – even ‘grud’ is dead!) In the UK this film is an 18 certificate, so they were very right to drop those cod expletives – with the possible exception of Red Dwarf, I always find them cringeworthy! Instead real world swearing is in and given the amount of violence involved in this film, that can only have been the right decision.
In essence the, rightly, British director (Pete Travis), equally British writer (Alex Garland) and their team have ‘Nolaned’ up the world of Judge Dredd. This was, no doubt, influenced by the relatively small budget (half that of the Stallone film of 1995 and, if you take into account inflation, it’s really probably nearer only a third) but I suspect that even if they had a vastly bigger budget that they would still have gravitated towards a more grounded film reality. I absolutely think they made the right call. Stallone’s Judge Dredd film may have looked more authentic to the comics but this Dredd feels more authentic.
This brings us around to Karl Urban. To my mind, he is Judge Dredd. As Toby Longworth is the definitive audio Joe Dredd, Urban is the definitive film Dredd. And yes, Dredd keeps his helmet on. Okay, there is one shot where you can just about make out one of his eyes through the visor of his helmet but, that (no doubt mistake) aside, you never see his eyes and nor do you need to. This Dredd does not laugh, does not smile and if you could see his eyes all you’d see is pretty a constant scowl anyway! He is not entirely humourless, though, and has a good line in dead-pan terse comebacks, most of which are simply pitch-perfect deliveries of the word ‘yep’! Don’t worry though, the film didn’t turn him into a one-line ‘joke’ cracker, like Roger Moore or Arnie at their worst! No, Dredd is glacially cool, almost machine like. He is the uncompromising tool of the police state that he should be.
Olivia Thirlby brings us a contrasting sidekick in the shape of Judge Cassandra Anderson. She’s a rookie who’s on her last chance before being drummed out and would have been gone a long time before if it wasn’t for her psi abilities. I more ‘know of’ than really know the character of Anderson and have far fewer preconceptions about who she is and how she should be played. I have seen drawings and some of those vinyl models that ridiculously sexualise the character but, I’m happy to say, they didn’t do that with this film version. Thirlby does a great job of juxtaposing Anderson’s humanity as compared to Dredd’s granite-like nature and all the violence they both must engage in to survive.
At its heart, it is nothing more than a simple survival film. Our ‘heroes’ are trapped in enemy territory with little chance of rescue and must fight their way through whatever is thrown their way. In many ways it is simply a day in the life of Judge Dredd, albeit probably a slightly more intense day than usual. The implications for Mega-City One are slight, at best. The world isn’t needing to be saved, Dredd is barely changed by the experience (if at all), though Anderson is clearly hardened by it. This film is very consciously an introduction to the world of Judge Dredd. If we are lucky enough to get a sequel, then we can probably expect a more world endangering plot and perhaps more of the fantastical elements to come into play (hints are being made of maybe a sequel involving the Dark Judges – incidentally, I couldn’t help be reminded of those four when another group of four judges turn up near the end of this film).
Viewers are certainly left to ponder the nature of the police state that is Mega-City One. The political undertones are left as just undertones and while Dredd is nominally the hero there is no real attempt to paint him as such. Dredd is tool of a fascist state, able to meter out summary justice with his ‘lawgiver’ gun. Were the filmmakers right to leave the social commentary as subtext? I think they were, at least for this first film. If we do get to see the Dark Judges or political strife in the Justice Department next time, then I’d expect a lot more to be made of such concepts. Anderson is clearly more concerned with natural justice than simply and blindly applying the law and I’d expect any sequel that features her would also delve more deeply into that. As it is, this film does show some of the non-combatant residents of the Peach Trees block as innocents but otherwise the judges and ‘perps’ are about as bad as each another.
Nobody too squeamish should watch this new film (it’s 18 rated in the UK), it is pretty bloody and has some wonderfully shot slow motion effects that add even more to that bloody horror! A twisted sense of humour certainly helps, too. If that’s you, then I don’t hesitate to recommend Dredd.