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Notes On A Film: Dredd

‘Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’. That’s the first credit that comes up when the film has finished, before the name of the director or the screenwriter. If I wasn’t smiling before, I was certainly smiling when I saw those words. I don’t remember those words appearing in the credits for Judge Dredd, but I try not to remember too much about that film – I hazily recall the great judge costume and the Lawmaster (the judges’ bike), and the fact that they included lots of elements from the comic books, but a film with Rob Schneider as comic relief to a Sylvester Stallone who can’t keep the helmet on for very long made in a time when ‘camp’ was the style used for comic book movies shouldn’t be allowed too much space in my memory palace.

Dredd is the film that Judge Dredd deserves: it’s violent but with a dry black humour, the helmet remains firmly on the head at all times, Mega-City One looks good (using locations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, it’s not as in the future as I would have thought; this film has the idea that the near future wouldn’t change too much from now, even with futuristic touches such as the Lawgiver, the gun of the judges) and Karl Urban superbly channels Clint Eastwood, much as he channelled DeForest Kelley as Dr McCoy in Star Trek, as Judge Dredd in a role where he acts with his chin and his voice (and he doesn’t have a silly ‘character arc’ to worry about). This is a very solid start to a franchise: it introduces the world and the character for future stories.

The film uses a classic set-up: a new recruit is shown the ropes, in this case Dredd evaluates the psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, not wearing a helmet because it interferes with her abilities), so that the audience can introduced to Mega-City One and the concept of the judge – judge, jury, executioner in one. As mentioned in the film, in a city of 800 million residents sprawling from Boston to Washington, there are 17,000 reported crimes a day, and the judges can respond to only 6% of them. A routine call sees Dredd and Anderson go to Peach Trees, a 200-storey slum run by resident drug lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). When Dredd and Anderson enter a drug den and capture a lieutenant (played by The Wire’s Wood Harris, Avon Barksdale himself, who you think should be running the show), Ma-Ma worries that he will tell all back at the Hall of Justice, so she shuts down the entirety of the block via the nuclear blast shields on all tower blocks and orders the two judges killed.

Dredd film poster by JockThe film has the unfortunate timing of coming out so soon after The Raid, which uses essentially the same plot of a drug lord ordering the deaths of the cops raiding his tower, thus setting a small shadow over this film. However, Dredd the film soon distinguishes itself with its future setting its central character. Dredd the man doesn’t say much (although he gets some of the best lines) but he is a powerful presence; Urban uses the sneer to perfection – sometimes, the jutting of the chin and the curve of the lower lip in the sneer looks exactly the same as the drawn sneer by Ezquerra or Brian Bolland. There are also some lovely nods towards the comic book: the tickertape of a news programme talks about the Fergee memorial, there is a piece of graffiti in the tower that says ‘CHOPPER’ in the style of the anti-establishment tagger/surfer, and I could swear that the hugely overweight dead man in the foyer was a nod to Two-Ton Tony because of the presence of a small wheeled seat for his enormous stomach.

The other distinguishing factor is the presence of two strong female characters, something that is so rare in action films where women are either the girlfriend to be rescued/threatened or the wife who gets killed in the first reel as motivating factor. Anderson is tough and aware of her unusual nature in an unforgiving world but who steps up and does the job; she’s a good foil and contrast for Dredd. Ma-Ma is also a strong female character, even if she is the villain of the piece – she runs her empire ruthlessly and she is not stupid, and it was refreshing to see this level of equality in action cinema.

The film was shot in 3D, and I saw the film in 3D (something I don’t normally do) because (a) I hoped that a little extra money would help bring about the possibility of sequels and (b) there was only one showing in 2D for the entire day, which is a pretty dire ratio. As with most films, the 3D doesn’t add anything, with the exception of the scenes representing the effects of Slo-Mo, the fictional drug being sold by Ma-Ma, which causes the user to experience time at 1% of normal. The first drug bust is a particular highlight, with Dredd shooting a perp in the face and blood spraying out of the screen; however, a film that is deliberately claustrophobic in its nature by restricting itself to the confines of the narrow hallways in a tower block is never going to be able to justify shooting in 3D.

Despite my reservations about the 3D, I really liked this film: it was a good representation of Judge Dredd and his world on film (regarding the nature of its existence, but without robots and aliens and muties); it’s a violent and blackly funny as the book; and Karl Urban is perfect as Joe Dredd, acting and sounding exactly as I imagine the character. This Dredd film deserves sequels.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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