Mainstream Review: Dredd
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorilla Film Magazine is aware of films, television and games that are actually popular. We don’t put a lot of effort into covering that stuff, but we’re definitely aware of it. So here’s the Mainstream review of the week.
Release Date: 14/01/12
Judge Dredd is a law enforcer who works tirelessly to restore some semblance of order in a huge, dystopian metropolis called Mega-City One. The city is a grey, bloated, metaphor for ‘the machine’, the kind of future home for humanity that Pink Floyd warned us about. The ‘Judges’ are fascist policemen, each acting as judge, jury and executioner, and dispensing justice as they see fit. Dredd is an iconic symbol of totalitarianism, and in any other story he would be the villain, but Mega-City One is so corrupted and vile, he’s the only hero we’ve got.
Although he significantly tones down the satirical elements of the comic book, Alex Garland’s take on Judge Dredd is surprisingly faithful to the source material. Dredd himself doesn’t grow as a character, at the start of the film he’s a cold, unrelenting bastard, a parody of the soulless justice system, and he’s exactly the same come the credits. That said, the character is consistently hilarious, but the humour comes from his cruelty, his lack of personality and, perhaps most importantly, his habit of understating everything. He only speaks when necessary, preferring to grimace menacingly, and his obligatory one-liners defy the law of what a one-liner should be. Instead of delivering ‘humorous’ puns, like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, he simply states things like “Negotiation’s over. Sentence is death.” or, when asked to round up the entire plot of the film; “Drug Bust. The perps were uncooperative.”
Karl Urban does a fantastic job as Dredd, essentially playing a robot with a gravelly voice. It’s a very modest performance, considering he isn’t allowed to show off as an actor, he doesn’t even take his helmet off throughout the entire film, so we never once see his eyes or anything above the mouth.
Without an evolving, emotionally engaging protagonist, the film relies on the rookie sidekick, Olivia Thirlby’s Judge Anderson, to inject a bit of humanity into the story. Anderson is really the star of the show, she’s a recruit who failed her aptitude test, but is given another shot at being a Judge due to a mutation that gives her powerful psychic abilities (although, rather interestingly, that’s not always an advantage when dealing with the sick minds of the criminals). Anderson is often the voice of the audience, calling into question Dredd’s black and white view of the world, and defending criminals she sees as victims of the system. She’s also appropriately scared when things get tough, which provides a bit of tension in the more action-packed and (really) violent scenes. Without her, we would be stuck with Dredd simply shaking off the insane danger he’s put in time and again, and we would come to find the action as banal as he clearly does.
Speaking of action, there’s plenty of it, walls explode, people are blown to pieces, and the inclusion of a drug that seems to slow down time leads to some stunning slow motion sequences that somehow make even the most violent deaths appear beautiful and tranquil. The lack of a really big budget stops things from going epic, and the majority of the film takes place in a single, immense tower block, which unfortunately draws parallels with The Raid. Although the similarities are a complete coincidence, Dredd can’t help but suffer in comparison, at least as far as incredible action scenes go, but if you give Dredd a chance, it still holds up on it’s own merits.
Interestingly, Dredd, a science fiction film based on a comic book (and, in many ways, a fairly generic action movie), totally passes the Bechdel Test. There are several women in the film, including Lena Headey as Ma-Ma, the rather terrifying villain, and they all have motivations and character arcs that don’t revolve around the male characters. In fact, given that Dredd is an avatar for emotionless justice, and most of the other male characters are fairly standard criminals and creeps, it’s the women, Anderson and Ma-Ma, who have personalities we can identify with.
Also none of the women are sexualised or fetishised, there’s no ‘boob armor’ on Anderson’s uniform, it’s pretty much the same as Dredd’s (although she’s helmet-less, so we can identify with her). The subject of sex or sexism never really comes up, except in a scene where one of the films villains attempts to unhinge Anderson by thinking sexy thoughts (it doesn’t work).
Ma-Ma is an intriguing villain, a dead-eyed, old kingpin, addicted to drugs and power, and waiting for death. Power has become a chore for her, and you get the sense that she’s bored with life and doesn’t see an escape, so she tortures other people like a spiteful child with a magnifying glass and an ants nest.
The cast is fairly small (again, the budget), with only a handful of other characters in the story, including the Chief Judge (who also happens to be a women) and a perp played by Wood Harris who, like his role as Avon Barksdale in The Wire, justifies his criminal behaviour as defiance of the corrupt justice system.
Dredd didn’t do so well at the box office, possibly because of the extreme violence, comparisons to The Raid or memories of the 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone. However, it was released on DVD in the UK a couple of weeks ago, and I urge you to go and buy it. Although it’s still a huge mainstream feature film, it needs a bit of support to keep the franchise going, and offer audiences a different spectacle to the CGI, self-indulgent mess of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, or even the dry self-importance of The Dark Knight Rises. Comic book movies often only appeal to the hardcore fans, unless it’s a homogenised cash-in based on bland, archetypal heroes such as the Marvel movies. I would argue Dredd should appeal to a wider demographic, it’s going for a ‘big dumb action movie’ vibe but there’s enough satire and dark humour to keep things interesting. Also the music is fantastic, a bleak, grubby industrial score that has real crunch, and is vastly superior to the much hyped Tron OST by Daft Punk.
There are no magical MacGuffin cubes or awkward name drops (I’m looking at you, “Robin”), the references to the bigger world that Dredd inhabits are scattered about to build a sense of place and time, rather than to satisfy fans. The film feels modest in scope, with a tight, textbook narrative, but with a lot of potential to go big. You get the feeling that should Dredd get a sequel, his world will open up, and we’ll get a chance to delve into the dark and satirical themes of the comic series, capitalism, consumerism, fascism and the ultimate price of justice: freedom.
This was written by David Knight.