Only someone with little common sense would compare Dredd to the recent actioner, The Raid. Yes, both films feature lead characters who are cops, navigating their way through the dangers of an apartment complex controlled by drug lords. But that’s where the similarities end. One is a straight forward actioner, the other an intelligent science-fiction piece disguised as an action film. We already have plenty of fanboys debating or comparing the differences between Star Trek and Star Wars, let’s save that for another forum. These wonderful films should be, forgive the pun, judged on their individual merits.
Unlike the previous comic book films of recent years (and months), Dredd is a small movie, with big ideas. It raises many questions about where our society is headed and how the judicial system may adapt and it holds a mirror in front of us, suggesting that things may get really ugly before they get better. Even though Dredd is based on the 2000 AD comic book series, it doesn’t feel like a “comic book film”, and plays more like a simple thriller and character study that doesn’t get preachy with the politics it raises. The film is a visually hypnotic work of art, one of those rare instances where the 3D process actually supports the storytelling. In this case, the 3D process not only gives the violence within Dredd’s story dramatic impact, but often puts us in the mindset of the characters. At its center are some fine performances by three leads which resonate long after the credits have rolled.
It’s tough to ignore Hollywood’s previous attempt at adapting Judge Dredd for the silver screen, the disastrous 1995 action vehicle of the same name, starring Sylvester Stallone. That was a silly nightmare of a film, with hammy performances and essentially no story. If Stallone had truly understood the Judge Dredd character, he actually might have been able to play him in the same manner as this latest film’s lead, Karl Urban. Yes, under the direction of Pete Travis and writer/producer Alex Garland, Urban pays homage to the comic book character by never removing his trademark helmet, since Dredd after all represents faceless “justice”. But the actor also gives a measured and controlled performance that speaks volumes. You can’t see his eyes of the top half of his face, but you can read him just fine.
Mega City One is a massive landscape that spans the entire Eastern seaboard in the not-too-distant future. Following nuclear war, mankind would rebuild and 800 million people populate these massive cities, walled off from the ruins of the old world. Law enforcement are represented by the “Judges” who have been given the power to be judge, jury and executioner as they police the population. In this tale, Judge Dredd is one of the most feared cops, but not yet the legend he will eventually become. Following a spry action sequence where he pursues and guns down three armed thugs via motorcycle, Dredd is tasked with babysitting a new recruit by the Chief Justice. The new rookie is Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who despite passing each aptitude test required of a Judge, is in danger of failing. The Chief Justice sees Anderson as a special case, since like many others, she is a mutant due to exposure to nuclear fallout as an adolescent. Anderson is not a freak in the physical sense, but her mutation has granted her psychic abilities which may give her an edge over your average Judge. To test her out in the field, Dredd is ordered to take her onto the city streets for a final evaluation. Their answer to a triple homicide at an apartment complex may be their last.
Three drug dealers have been skinned alive and thrown from the roof of the two-hundred story apartment complex known as “Peach Trees”. Determining that they are also gang members, Dredd and his rookie raid a drug den and by chance encounter high level enforcer Kay (Wood Harris) who Anderson detects is one of the murderers. Their attempt to escort the prisoner back to central command for questioning is cut short, when the entire facility is put into unauthorized lockdown mode, with blast shields preventing their escape. Behind the deception is Ma-Ma, aka Madeline Madrigal (Lena Heady), head of the clan that runs the entire Peach Tree complex. Fearing that Kay’s interrogation will reveal her drug operation to the authorities, Ma-Ma orders her minions to kill the trapped Judges on sight. Since fleeing is no longer an option, Dredd and Anderson must now fight their way through murderous gang members with little ammo and upwards is the only direction in which they can proceed. All in a day’s work for a Judge, right?
Dredd is a gritty action film set in a dirty and dilapidated environment that’s rare for futuristic sci-fi movies. Blade Runner does come to mind, but Travis and Garland were wise to shoot in Johannesburg, going for a look that resembles the recent sci-fi hit District 9. Peach Trees is essentially a housing project, home to not only nasty criminals, but low income families, many of which find themselves victims by the end of the story. The environment may be gritty, but it’s presented in a simple fashion.
At the heart of Ma-Ma’s operation is a new drug on the streets called “Slo-Mo” an inhaler, that makes the brain see things at one percent their normal speed. Travis and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle make brilliant use of not just the 3D process, but the Phantom camera which can shoot at speeds of one thousand frames per second. Early on in the film, when Dredd and Anderson engage the drug den’s inhabitants in a firefight, the action slows down to what many of the slo-mo users are seeing, inter-cut with quick shots of Dredd’s point-of-view at normal speed. Bullets pierce flesh and blood splatters in a symphony of violence that’s more hypnotic and beautiful than appalling or gratuitous. The effect works even better in one sequence that may just be one of the most beautiful onscreen deaths I’ve ever seen in a film.
Not a fan of 3D? That’s understandable. But Travis and Mantle, use the process brilliantly not just to accentuate violence, but tell their story. 3D photography actually puts us in the head of Anderson during scenes where she probes a suspect’s mind or detects danger. The colors change and perspectives shifts within an environment as we get deep inside her thoughts or those of a suspect under interrogation. There was some real thought put into this and those behind it should be applauded.
Karl Urban is one of those actors who probably should have been a household name by now. He’s put in some incredible character work in genre pictures like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy and the underrated Pathfinder. Films that essentially did not require him to “act”. Urban was perhaps the best thing about J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, recreating DeForest Kelly’s acting style and mannerisms as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, yet making the character his own. Judge Dredd is not an easy role to play, yet Urban also makes it his own, relying on the pitch of his voice as well as body language, since the trademark helmet limits his facial mannerisms and eliminates his eyes. Dredd is a constant, a solid representation of justice, never changing over the course of any story. As Dredd moves from Point A to Point B, he is essentially the same person by this film’s conclusion, yet his eyes may now be slightly more open due to his experience with Anderson.
Thirlby’s character is in actuality the one that evolves over the course of the story. Though her abilities have made her somewhat of an outcast, she is still fully aware of what she is capable of and where she has come from. She only lacks experience and the conflict at Peach Trees not only gives her perspective, but the fortitude to carry out what the average man can’t. Dredd, constantly evaluating Anderson, often questions her actions and thanks to Garland, their work relationship blossoms through some incredibly witty dialogue.
Dredd: “This your first time in armed combat?”
Anderson: “Yes, sir.”
Dredd: “I was going to ask you, when did you realize you forgot your helmet?”
Anderson: “My helmet interferes with my psychic abilities, sir.”
Dredd: “A bullet might interfere with them more.”
It’s very rare that films of this type have a female villain and though Heady plays a similar antagonist on HBO’s Game of Thrones, this is an entirely different character and performance. Little back story is provided concerning Ma-Ma’s origin, save for a short montage that reveals she was a prostitute who assumed the business of her employer after he disfigured her. She retaliated by “feminizing him with her teeth” or so they say. We don’t really need to know that much about her origin or what makes her tick, since Heady’s subtle performance suggests this woman has a screw loose and like so many citizens of Mega City One, deals with her pain through drugs. She’s a blood thirsty shark, who is already bored after her meteoric rise within the criminal underworld and yearns for a challenge or perhaps even death. There’s a fire behind Heady’s eyes and a rictus grin that’s scarier than your average antagonist spouting dialogue and waving a gun.
Dredd is actually a small film, made on a budget smaller than most comic book epics these days. Yet it’s ambitious with the ideas it presents and simple story it tells. It doesn’t focus on teen angst, alien invaders or mercenaries plotting to destroy civilization like other recent successful films. Just a small conflict within a society whose judicial system may or may not be the best solution to its current state of affairs. I’m sure if there were a follow-up, the ideas as well as the budget may get bigger, but sometimes filmmakers are more creative when they have less resources at their disposal.
One of my favorite Japanese Manga’s is Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, whose rights were recently acquired by Steven Spielberg. Dredd’s gritty, noirish futuristic tech world is a perfect example of how that series should be adapted for the silver screen. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s industrial score fits the picture perfectly, providing the right mood and atmosphere, often enhancing the visuals.
Have a listen of Leonard-Morgan’s amazing “industrial” score.
Though this is science-fiction, Dredd’s environment feels like a fully realized world, one enhanced by our imagination since in truth we’ve only been provided a glimpse of it. Good movies are the ones that engage its audience and ask them to provide a bit of imagination of their own. Dredd is not only a promising start of a potential franchise, but a smart science-fiction picture disguised as an action flick. Nicely done.