Review written by Jordan Smith
When a friend told me of this film’s existence I recoiled in horror. It’s true. A complete contradiction of the title of course, so I think I should probably explain how little my hopes were for this film before I pile a ridiculous amount of praise upon it.
My friend isn’t a Judge Dredd fan like I am - not a fan of any comic for that matter – and I don’t believe had ever heard of 2000AD, where that character has appeared in almost every single Prog. He did know that the character was based on that in a comic because he’d seen the Stallone film like I had, the difference between us on the mention of that movie being that he enjoyed it. At the time I believe I ranted at him about this, a bit unfair of me seeing as he wouldn’t have had any idea what the fuck I was talking about when I said things like, “Bah! They tried to squeeze in characters from the Judge Child Saga for no good reason!” or “What the hell is Dredd doing taking his helmet off?!?” The latter complaint is one of those small things that peeved me off about the film – something that sounds really daft to anyone who isn’t at all familiar with the character – but, in general, it’s the multitude of big things that annoyed me. Ironically, though, these elements of the film that I whinged about the most probably made it sound very faithful to the source material with all of its references to actual stories. The problem is that it tries to do all of these things, make this complex story out of it all, but ends up doing very little.
So as soon as I heard there was a reboot on the way I did indeed flinch at the thought. When my friend told me that it would be in 3D and have all these slow motion sequences too, my anticipation plummeted further, being cynical about the former and not even bothering to imagine what the latter might be like. When I saw the short trailers on TV when the film was close to being released I was even less impressed. What had they done with the eagle? Where was all the hovering vehicles? Why were they showing off the ending in a goddamn trailer? And so, I never saw it in cinemas, instead seeing the amazingly crap The Dark Knight Rises as my comic book film that year, and never found out that it received a lot of praise from fans of the comic. It was, in my mind, probably very crap.
Last year my dad got hold of a copy from someone at his work. For some reason, even though I now own it on blu-ray, he still hasn’t seen it. But I reluctantly decided to check it out when he brought it home, all pessimistic and promising to give him a good moan about it. Instead, I loved it. It’s not only my favourite comic book adaptation of all time, but one of my favourite films of all time too, full stop. Here is why.
It seems to me that a lot of comic book films aren’t very smart. They like to really raise the stakes, but often do so too high, shooting themselves in the foot at some point or other by creating a plot hole or two, or following inane logic for the sake of some fancy sequence or other, etc. Logic is the key word of that sentence because, no, I don’t mean that these types of films should be more realistic, if that’s what you’re thinking. In fact, that’s very often the thing that gets them in trouble. But all fiction (that isn’t a parody, I guess) does need a good reason for why the character’s find themselves in a certain situation or do certain things, otherwise our suspension of disbelief suddenly snaps and we’re no longer as engrossed in what we’re watching like we were before, if at all. Not so in Dredd. There is a logical reason for everything that happens in this film, and I’ll try to explain why that’s so brilliant.
Back when I was still playing my Playstation 3 a sequel was released to a game called Uncharted 2, and I was very much looking forward to it after all the time I’d spent playing the first two games. This third game, however, was crap and I think the reason why it was so poor could best be explained by the writing process. How they built this third entry into the series was by thinking of these massive set pieces first, and only then building a story that ties them together afterwards. As you can imagine, this did not work, with characters making irrational choices and doing a lot of stupid things, the pace also losing its momentum along the way, all for the excuse of dumping them in this silly situation or other.
The reason I bring this up is that Dredd has a lot of action sequences of its own, but it doesn’t feel like the script was written around them or anything like that. What’s actually very admirable about the film is that it feels like we follow our two lead characters and, based on their actions, they land in a situation, and then respond to it appropriately. The whole film is about these two Judges pushing their way through to the top of this city block, Peach Trees, but along the way they’re forced to retreat and hide in addition to simply fighting back, quite naturally even running low on ammo by the end, and it all just makes sense, including the reason why they’re stuck in this block in the first place, which brings me to my next point.
IT’S NOT YOUR TYPICAL FILM
This is a really interesting thing about Dredd in comparison to the version Stallone starred in. The biggest mistake in that film, as I say, is that they tried to do way too much, basically messing everything up instead of creating the exciting story that they thought they were. This isn’t just a trapping a bunch of comic book adaptations fall into, but films in general, particularly action-heavy ones that feel like they must prove that they’re not just about all the explosions or something. Not so with Dredd again. I mean, it does prove itself amazing, but it doesn’t try to reach for the stars and then grab all the fucking stars greedily, shoving them in your face. This is an action film set almost entirely within a city block, for god’s sake. Just think about that for a moment, and then think of the last action film that you saw and how it most likely had this convoluted story and the type of characters that are spelled out to you in the kind of setting built for impressive looking set pieces. Not Dredd.
Early on we do find Anderson staring at a picture of her family, and we do see her read Dredd’s mind, for example, but at no point do either of them deliver a monologue about their life as violins play in the background. Hell, the titular character, promoted on most posters of the films, the guy who we’re arguably meant to know the most, never takes off his helmet once. How weird is that? Not strange enough? Well, the set-up for the story itself is simple too. It’s thickly layered, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but the concept itself is this: Dredd takes rookie psychic Anderson out on assignment; she decides they should investigate a triple homicide; shortly after arriving at the scene they’re sealed in the block by drug lord Ma Ma and must fight for their lives. That’s it. Seriously. It’s practically unheard of, especially for an action film. For one that had a smaller budget than most, it’s pretty brave of them as well.
Yet, although a few critics have found what they believe is fault with this simplistic approach – somewhat missing the point of Dredd’s line, “The perps were…uncooperative”, at the end, I might add – it’s actually something that makes it really unique. Not only is it a lot more fun action movie than most with this bare-bones mindset – more original, I’d go as far as to argue – it also gives them the breathing space to explore all manner of interesting things, but they do so in quite the fascinating way.
And here we are at my favourite thing about the film. So many fucking movies treat the audience like they’re idiots, injecting themselves with heavy doses of exposition in case you’re too stupid to get it. You will find no such bullshit here, and I love the people who made this film for it. True, it’s not got as complicated a plot when compared to something like Inception, a film in which the characters explain everything that’s going on through dialogue whenever they can, but neither does it make it blatantly obvious how characters are feeling at a particular moment, nor does it tell you how you should feel about them, the latter of which I think is key for a Judge Dredd film. A brief monologue delivered by Karl Urban at the start of the film, for example, explains who the Judges are and what they do for those who aren’t fans of the comics, but at no point does a character confront Dredd or Anderson and rhetorically ask them if they think they’re doing what’s best for the people or anything silly like that in the obvious interest of making you ponder on that thought too.
The clearest example of this film’s alternate approach is when Anderson is forced to execute a dying man because “the sentence is death” for “the attempted murder of a Judge”, a quite shocking act in and of itself, but made more murky when she shortly thereafter learns that this man was a husband and father to the woman who lets them hide in her apartment. Where the subtlety enters is as she’s riding in an elevator with Dredd after this scene, and I would point out that this is for less than thirty seconds. Clearly Anderson’s having a difficult time coping with this and perhaps we in the audience are wondering what we should be thinking of her too. But it’s the fact that she turns to Dredd in this seconds-long scene and finds him staring at her that’s really amazing. The guy’s constantly wearing his helmet so you can’t see his eyes – just that bloody big frown – but we know from Anderson’s expression that he was sizing her up, judging her poorly. So when he contrasts an early scene of the film by telling her “You look ready” near the end of the film, in addition to hesitating in following her after she more or less tells him to fuck off when she lets a “perp” go free to his protests, we find that the two characters have gradually developed over the course of the film and in the end is why Dredd gives her a pass, despite the fact that she was disarmed at one point, which should have made her a fail. Amazing or what?
But I digress. There is so much subtlety in this film, and I haven’t even mentioned the things you can learn about the world. Some details about the city is communicated through dialogue – though not in an inappropriate way like a school teacher explaining something to you very delicately – but you do need to pay attention to see the bulk of it. The best perspective to take in order to understand what I’m talking about is by looking at what we see of the Judges in the film – their weapons, their technology, their bikes, etc. – and comparing this with the citizen’s. We know a lot of them are unemployed but it’s only through really looking at the small touches that we can see the true economic gap between the two, like most of the vehicles we see them using being very similar to one another, suggesting they’re the most affordable, whilst the block itself is covered in graffiti and has elevators that don’t work properly. The two youngest children we see even join in on the fray against the Judges in a desperate attempt to make something of themselves or their families, though end up stunned by Dredd to serve time in Iso Cubes. This is a world so constantly moving that food courts are only shut for a brief period of time after a shootout, no care paid to the people who were killed, the bodies of whom aren’t even moved before someone comes along to clean up their blood, just so they can reopen the place. Again: it’s amazing stuff and I could frankly talk about all these tiny little things all day.
That’s my three big reasons why the film is so glorious, but there’s a lot of smaller ones too, some of which weren’t exactly necessary but do make it even more memorable, and I’ll go through these very quickly.
IT’S A FILM FANS OF THE COMICS WILL LOVE
The original version borrowed a lot of ideas from the comics which someone like my friend who I ranted about it at might take to mean that it was a faithful adaptation. Though I did like some of what they threw in – the block war that opens the film and the Chief Judge taking the Long Walk for instance – this is better. The line that I suggested those critics who called the story too simplistic missed – “The perps were…uncooperative” – sums up the trials Dredd and Anderson face in a nutshell: it is just a typical day in the life of of a Judge. Of course, god knows there’s that temptation of wanting the Apocalypse War or another of the big epics on screen, but I think it’s much better that they chose a pretty standard idea for at least this first film yet, if I’m being perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind if they did so again because, small in scope or not, it felt like I was watching a film set in Mega City One, and the characters felt like they ought to, which is all that matters to me.
Being written so well despite the rather uncomplicated set-up, it should come as no surprise that the humour is very much what you would expect too, either satirical, quite dark or using the violence itself as humour, a homeless man being crushed by the closing blast doors of the block. Yep, it’s as violent as you’d hope for it to be, unapologetically so with a head being literally blown into pulp by Anderson near the end as an example. Hell, I was surprised when Dredd didn’t kill the kids who tail him and Anderson since, when I was collecting the comic, the guy shot down an unarmed, very young skysurfer, who was less than fourteen years of age if I recall correctly. But believe me – though he lets them live, everyone else who is in path is shot down. Fuck knows what his body count is by the end.
It’s always nice when things are said from the comics in a casual manner too – “bodies for Resyk” as an example – or we familiar with it notice things like the curse, “Drokk!”, written on the back of a jacket, a Fattie lying dead by his belliwheel and or Chopper’s scrawl, things that aren’t easter eggs but simply part of the world that our attention doesn’t have to be drawn to. Truly a film that fans can cherish.
IT PORTRAYS WOMEN REALLY WELL
This may not have bothered everyone if it weren’t the case but it would’ve annoyed me. Not just Judge Dredd, but the whole of 2000AD is guest to many amazing writers, and one of the great things I can’t help to have noticed in my collection of it is that it’s very rare of a writer to come along and treat the sexes unequally. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here either. That the film has a female lead in Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, and doesn’t try to differentiate her in appearance – well, she doesn’t wear her helmet like Dredd, but there’s a perfectly logical reason for that – from the other lead character, who is a man, is quite surprising itself. When I was told of the film I pictured them hiring some blonde beauty to play as Anderson and playing her up as pure sex appeal instead of as the Anderson we all love and know. But they did not and, even though a perp who’s dragged around for most of the film pictures the two of them in a sexually violent manner, it’s neither for very long or exploitative, Anderson in fact turning the tables on him, making him piss himself.
The third main character would be Ma Ma, played by Lena Headey, famous for her role as Cersei in Game of Thrones. Uh, yeah, her role could not possibly be more different here, though it’s still incredibly performed and is an excellent character. Put it this way though: where Cersei does use her looks as a means of getting her way, Ma Ma bites off a guy’s cock in the flashback sequence that introduces her and from that point onwards is depicted as a downright psychopath. In another contrast between the two, where Cersei is always keeping up physical appearances by having her handmaids wash her, do her hair and help her select dresses, Ma Ma has a nasty scar on the side of her face and has the look of a total drug addict, her bath scene not sexual in nature but oddly beautiful as she takes some of her own drug, Slo Mo. Hopefully they have as brilliant and genuinely original female characters in a sequel.
IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS BEAUTIFUL
Okay, so I’m partly guessing on this one since I haven’t seen it in 3D, having foolishly skipped the film when it came out. However, even on blu-ray, it’s pretty obvious where the 3D would have kicked in: during those breathtaking slow motion sequences. Oh yes, the slow motion isn’t the horror I imagined it to be at all – it is stunning. Never has a guy getting shot through the side of the mouth, exposing his teeth, looked so amazing, a sentence I never expected to say. Christ, don’t even get me started on how gorgeous Ma Ma’s fall that ends the film is or I will never end this post. Yet even when it’s not in slow motion, there’s just sheer beauty to this urban wasteland as we either take some time to breathe as Dredd and Anderson make their way through the well-designed and thought of block unmolested, or we’re caught in another explosive gunfight, which incidentally are more varied than you’d think.
That the soundtrack fits well in all situations makes it all the easier to find yourself totally engrossed in the film, the track for Anderson realising that she killed the husband of the woman who helps her and Dredd being as regretfully sad as you’d expect; the track for the slow motion sequences being these beautiful things where voices sing in the background; and the tracks for all the action sequences being these loud, pulse pounding beasts that would fit really well in some video games that I can think of. All of that, with some changing of words, could be said about the excellent sound design too, if you were wondering. But the soundtrack itself is one you’re going to want on the musical device of your choice, that’s for sure.
And that is why I bought the limited edition hardcover of the forthcoming screenplay for fifty quid…I think. Maybe I’m just crazy, splashing out that much money for a signed book, I dunno. It is the first limited edition book that I’ve bought on purpose though (I own two Daredevil books that have an exclusive variant cover you don’t find on regular copies, but I didn’t know that when I picked them up) so it’s kind of neat that I did so for a film I love dearly. There is a remaining 200 copies that will be available for purchase from other retailers, only those on 2000AD’s website having sold out already (in three days, I believe, so I was lucky I paid for mine fairly quickly) if you were looking to pick it up, and I highly recommend doing so if you love this film as much as I do because the artist who signs it, Jock, actually drew a whole comic to match the script, which I’m betting will look rather amazing indeed. Obviously I’ll be reviewing it once I get my grubby mitts on it, with pictures most likely seeing as it’s a numbered copy too. Sadly, that’s three months off. Boooo!
In the meantime, the reprint of Dredd: Underbelly, the comic book sequel to the film – though let’s all hope an actual film sequel will be happening sooner or later – arrived on my doorstep earlier this week, so I’ll have a review up for that soon, especially since a sequel to that, uh, sequel is coming to the Megazine again shortly. Until then.