Nobody is in danger of thinking that Dredd is any sort of Nolan-style mega-saga, but we’ve seen enough spectacular comic-book movies and enough catastrophic missed opportunities to know what the secret is. It’s not convincingly depicting a man who can bend steel bars; it’s creating a world where a man who bends steel bars would look right at home.
Vantage Point director Pete Travis and 28 Days Later/Sunshine writer Alex Garland clearly appreciate this as we’re dragged into the pressure cooker of Mega-City One, not the outlandish far future of the comic-book, but a future round the corner, one of battered minivans, panhandlers and street protests. Admittedly, this is clearly better for the balance sheet of DNA Films – the production company behind Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and 28 Days/Weeks Later – but it’s stronger for it – it’s today’s sprawl and urban anxiety tomorrow, spread like malignant tumour across the sparse, irradiated desert of the Cursed Earth. The Cape Town location and the footage of the Arab Spring and London Riots flashing up on the endless monitor banks of the Justice Department control room make it look like every city you see on the news through a haze of dreary, apocalyptic headlines, and a very real, terrifying future.
Into this hyper-real Tuesday next stalks Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd. By no means the titanic caricature that Sylvester Stallone was in ’95, he’s nonetheless instantly at odds with his surroundings – a cartoon transplant marching around a dreary reality, slightly too larger than life, slightly too tightly wound – a picture of contrived bad-assery.
As the thrill-power picks up, he’s joined by young psychic trainee, Anderson (Olvia Thirlby), and the two find themselves entombed in one of the city’s vast, overpopulated tower blocks at the whim of Lena Headey’s predatory Ma-Ma Madrigal and her tooled up gang of drug pushers – the lingering comic-book unreality of the buttock-clenching Urban and the dense, piss-streaked reality of this metropolis meet in the middle, with explosions and gunfire as superglue.
From the constant chatter of radio traffic and overhead surveillance footage to the rumblings about how few Judges visit Ma-Ma’s urban citadel and how few crimes Judges can actually respond, and the constant wary, sideways glances from people in the street, there’s a real sense that this is a society in which due process was necessarily suspended, and safety and security handed over to reactionary paramilitaries.
Dredd 3D is a comic-book movie in every way in which it doesn’t really matter to the casual viewer – there’s no vast suspension of disbelief required, no more so than that required for Seventies cop thrillers, contemporary crime dramas like The Wire and The Shield, or the downbeat, low-cost, no-good future of Escape From New York or Mad Max. It briefly makes you wish there’d been a Seventies Judge Dredd movie, shot in New York on a pissant budget and starring some no-name in motorcycle leathers. Fans sniffed at Dredd’s uniform, his special forces fatigues compared to the gold-plated statue of recent 2000 AD strips, but Urban’s attire and leaner build is as faithful to the more subdued, body-hugging uniform devised by Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra in the Lawman of the Future’s first appearance as the exaggerated outfit the character wears today along with his exaggerated, steroidal physique.
There’s no a huge deal of substance to the plot. Dredd and Anderson, with a cuffed potential witness to Ma-Ma’s crimes in tow, must make it through the locked-down Peach Tree block and either get help, smash every lawbreaker into chunks of legally sanction offal, or die trying while the odds are increasingly stacked against them by Ma-Ma’s many minions, all more terrified of Headey’s scarred sociopath than they are of the two cops. It’s a story template that has ducked its head around the door of the Judge Dredd strip many times, and having the rookie by his side allows us to see Dredd through her eyes, and in contrast to her actions rather than by taking his helmet off and having Diane Lane impatiently try and tell him about feelings.
Slo-Mo though shakes everything up – the drug they’re trying to halt the production of, and the foundation of Ma-Ma’s gangland empire, is a shamelessly contrived narrative device for cranking out some gorgeous, hyper-stylised slow motion effects, which coupled with the real 3D makes for a fantastic spectacle as mobsters are shot in the face and thrown off high gantries into the lens, blood and detritus spinning hypnotically in all directions.
Dredd obviously won’t be for everyone; it’s a vile and uncompromising movie much in the same way Punisher: War Zone was, and like War Zone is therefore 100 per cent faithful to the spirit of the source material.
We’re also spared the expected character arc for Anderson – first shot of Thirlby’s trademark, fey, indie darling vulnerability and we know there’s going to be some conflict brewing when she’s called upon to administer her first execution. But it doesn’t quite pan out like that – she might be a weak link in Judge terms, but as far as the city’s lawbreaking nogoodniks are concerned, she’s another wrist-breaking, gun-nut with lethal reactions, and for a movie defined by gore-laden, shrapnel spitting set-piece action scenes, the core cast are delivering intensely restrained performances. Anderson just watches like a spectator to her own story, Dredd scowls purposefully through scene after scene like a man whose buttocks ache from clenching, and Ma-Ma broods, simmering and desensitised. Every character screaming with their body language and hardly anything else, but it works in their favour – especially with Urban, and after 96 minutes of staring at the same piss-nettle scowl, we become aware of every tightening of the jaw in determination or anger, or curl of understanding as if we’re communing with some sort of stern, judgmental Lassie, warning us of lawbreakers trapped down the well. He’s perversely likable for someone with a constant grimace and a talent for laconic understatement – echoing the glacial presence of near-mute drifters in Westerns and Samurai films.
We only get one flagship declaration of “I am the law” too – it’s that low key dialogue-wise, and if you’ve watched 1995’s Judge Dredd a few times, you find yourself habitually adding bad-ass action movie backchat where there isn’t any.
Destined to be talked about as much for its use of 3D and slow-motion spin on the old ultraviolence as it is any throwaway references to iso-cubes, Chopper or tributes to various comic-book creators inscribed on the sides of towerblocks, you can forgive them for shoehorning it into as many interesting combinations as possible – we see people racked by concussive waves of an explosion, gunfire warp the shape of their body and we see them slowly plummet from great heights to break open on the screen before us, and Anderson raids a perp’s mind with her psychic powers, duelling with him through images and ideas until he capitulates and wets himself.
It’s ugly and voyeuristic, and a lot of people aren’t going to have space for that in their lives, but it’s a film about an obsessively lethal future cop in a world where the police are pressing down on the small of society’s back in case society gets up and hurts itself, like George Orwell’s 1984 for fans of Jason Statham’s The Transporter.
That’s a fairly niche audience right there, but this one’s for you, buddy.