chris kilby -> RE: Dredd (31/10/2012 4:50:36 PM)
Judge Dredd was born of the same political and economic turmoil in the 1970s which produced The Sex Pistols and Margaret Thatcher. And Dredd’s always had an anarchic, punk sensibility (black leather and chains) which has always marked him out as a uniquely British creation.
Which is why the thrill-sucker infested Stallone film was such a miserable failure. It just didn’t get Dredd’s irony and satire. Strip him of that and he’s just a fascist. Like Batman. Which is why Judge Dredd’s American producers felt the need to set him against judges who were even bigger fascists than he was. Big mistake. As Dredd creator, John Wagner, himself said at the time, Judge Dredd belongs on the streets not the corridors of power. Which is why those flying bikes were such a dumb idea as well.
It didn’t help that the film was based on the most hackneyed (and atypical) Dredd story – the long-lost evil twin brother. The much more interesting Angel Gang should have been the main villains, not relegated to an easily disposable afterthought.
So after Stallone’s “pinball version of Blade Runner” (which, if anything, tried too hard and crammed too much in - block wars, The Long Walk, The Cursed Earth) I was hoping for something which got back to basics and Judge Dredd’s roots as a futuristic Dirty Harry. And I got it. This Dredd is as lean and mean as its budget and has an unmistakable Clint Eastwood snarl. Go ahead creeps – make my day!
Like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Dredd really captures the essence of the character – a tricky proposition as Stallone discovered. And, to be fair, old Sly did his best but he was hopelessly miscast. You don’t put a big star in a film then keep his face covered. Audiences would just go “Huh!?!” And rightly so. Which is why Dredd should have been played by a relative unknown like Mark “Drake from Aliens” Rolston. Or a vanity-free character actor like Ron Perlman who’s used to his features being hidden by prosthetics. Not some narcissistic megastar – “Ooh, look at my pecs!” No.
While Perlman was born to play Dredd, Karl Urban’s an inspired choice. Relatively unknown and devoid of ego (unlike some Dredds I could mention!), he’s an incredibly versatile actor and never the same twice. A Viking pin-up in LOTR, he stole the show as Dr McCoy in Star Trek and was a suitably taciturn, monosyllabic presence as a Russian assassin in The Bourne Supremacy – the role which probably got him the Dredd gig in the first place.
Not many actors could pull Dredd off – not if they don’t want to spend the next 20 years in the cubes! – but Urban does it. It’s a great physical performance and he gives good chin. Moving slowly and deliberately Urban suggests the power which lies behind the “anger and control,” only putting a spurt on when he has to. Like when he runs a gauntlet of flying bodies as he dodges the sort of minigun fire which would give Blane from Predator a hard on.
Tellingly, where Stallone bellowed “I AM DUH LUH!” Urban virtually whispers Dredd’s catchphrase. Speak softly and carry a big nightstick. Which just goes to show people are more likely to listen to you if you don’t scream and shout all the time. There’s a lesson for us all there, I think…
Resisting Hollywood temptation to do yet another clichéd comic book origin story, Dredd is mercifully free of all the hackneyed backstory, cack-handed comic relief, woefully misjudged (not to mention illegal) love interest and other crude attempts to “humanise” a character who is supposed to be a cold, unsympathetic machine. Dredd isn’t a man – he IS The Law!
He’s also a complete bastard. That’s as it should be. He might be a fascist but he’s our fascist. Part of Dredd’s ambiguous appeal has always been there are times when even us wishy-washy liberals would be glad to see him coming round the corner. So it’s ironic that The Guardian loved Dredd while The Maul HATED it! (The Daily Maul accusing anyone of fascism is beyond satire.) And if The Maul hates it then it’s gotta be good, right?
Mind you, I don’t remember Dredd ever “stunning” anyone before, juve or not. So even this Dredd isn’t quite as big a bastard as he is in the comics.
Unlike the Stallone version, Dredd doesn’t get bogged down in needless exposition. A terse, noir-ish voiceover at the start tells the uninitiated everything they need to know (“800 million people living in the ashes of the old world… The Cursed Earth and The Cursed City…”) before immediately establishing Dredd as judge, jury and executioner with a neat sideline in drier-than-cordite gallows humour (Dredd encourages one perp to plead guilty just to save him the paperwork!) and deadpan one-liners (“Choke on this!”) with brutal efficiency (“I heard you, hotshot.”)
Dredd’s pitch black humour translates remarkably well from the comics. What laughs there are derive almost entirely from his sheer unbending rigidity and Dreddpan response to everything – a grunt here, a “Yeah” there. Judge Dredd’s so deadpan he makes Dirty Harry look like a screaming hysteric.
Mega City One maybe isn’t quite as futuristic as you’d wish but it’s futuristic enough. Downtown Johannesburg with some CG cityblock enhancements. It’s cheap, but it works. Although it coulda done with a hint of New York in there - the Statue of Judgement symbolically towering over the Statue of Liberty, say. But the Not-So-Big Meg has room to expand should sequels ever be an option. More claustrophobic than epic, Dredd makes the most of its obvious budgetary limitations. In some ways, they actually work to the film’s advantage. There are no droids, aliens or muties which would just have been distracting at this stage anyway. That stuff can always come later. A fanboy can dream, can’t he…?
Mega City One has always been a “logical” extension of Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle’s 70s urban hell - “It’s all deep end” Dredd snarls early on, coming about as close to a moment of introspection or weakness as he ever gets. But it’s also Wagner’s grotesque satire of America itself. Scottish by birth but raised in America, Wagner is both insider and outsider. The League of Fatties with their belly wheels being a perfect example of his sardonic, sideways view of the USA. Wagner, one of the great unsung heroes of comics, is nothing less than a modern day Swift.
But as Kim Newman has observed, Mega City One is also inherently Dickensian. And as presented onscreen, it is Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature” where everyone is at each other’s throats and life is “nasty, brutish and short.”
Dredd’s nasty, brutish and short alright – always leave ‘em wanting more? And it makes few if any concessions to the audience or franchise-generating respectability. The violence and profanity (genuinely shocking in these sanitised times when even Paul Verhoeven’s back catalogue gets put through the 12A grist mill) is pleasingly old-school - the only “Drokk” here is on the back of a perp’s jacket! That too is very British. Like it or lump it, creeps. Up yours! I’m alright Dredd. And you can’t get more British than that. I’m sure the judge would approve. Even if American audiences didn’t. Buncha wimps.
Which is ironic since violence lies at the heart of Judge Dredd just as it lies at the heart of America. Even as a kid, I always knew that a faithful Judge Dredd movie would be an automatic 18 certificate. At least! And this is hardcore. Like Dredd should be. None of yer sanitised, 12A Hollywood bollocks here. There’s lashings of the old ultra-violence. And it’s unflinching stuff. Eyes are gouged, flesh is torn and heads explode. Bullets tear through faces (taking teeth and fragments of jawbone with them), victims are skinned alive and, in one agonisingly protracted money shot, a face pizzas into a sidewalk, filling the screen with blood – a red-out! – all in lingering “Slo-Mo.” Nice. Dredd won't win any BAFTAs but Fangos are assured. Gore hounds, bloodthirsty fanboys and yer granny’ll love it! But wot, no ricochet bullets? They missed a trick there, I think – fleeing perps in a lift…
Against my better judgement I shelled out to see this in 3D since Dredd was actually shot in 3D by the great Anthony Dodd-Mantle. (Not that I had much drokking choice - mutter, mumble, moan…) And… It was alright, I suppose. But while it augmented the heightened Slo-Mo sequences and the credits looked nice, I doubt it added much to the experience overall.
At least there were valid storytelling reason for this increasingly annoying gimmick for a change. The drug Slo-Mo (which appears to affect the part of the brain known as “Shatner’s Bassoon”) being the perfect excuse for Vantage Point Director, Pete Travis, to indulge his Sam Peckinpah tendencies; Dredd’s dystopian de-saturated pallet giving way to vivid, trippy colour whenever Slo-Mo is toked or Anderson struts her Psi-stuff.
Olivia Thirlby acquits herself well as Rookie Judge Anderson, vulnerable yet tough and she knows how to deliver a roundhouse kick. With the whole point of Dredd being he never changes, it’s up to the sidekick to carry all that character arc stuff, setting a template for future Dredd movies which could have the likes of Chopper in a similar role. Anderson’s presence was a shrewd move which hints at mutants, Dark Judges and a lot of the weirdness Dredd routinely encounters; subconsciously priming audiences for things to come. I hope.
More serious than she is in the comics, Anderson can still be amusingly flippant: “Welcome to the inside of your head. Kinda empty in here.” Though nowhere near as flippant as Dredd’s last big screen sidekick who didn’t go down too well if I remember right.
Judge Dredd may be set in America but it’s very British in tone and, er, execution. Dredd is almost a parody of the American hero - the machismo and fascism of a Dirty Harry exaggerated to ludicrous extremes. Almost? There’s no “almost” about it.
While the sort of perp Dredd would deal with in six pages of the comics, Lena Heady’s generic drugs queenpin, Ma-Ma (Barker?) was actually a good call as introductory antagonist. Created specially for the film and not as scene-stealingly OTT as Dredd’s more iconic foes, the focus rightly falls on him a la Batman Begins. But she’s still an interesting character in her own right and provides a fascinating dynamic with the judge – judge and perp, right and wrong, yin and yang, but above all, male and female. Dredd and Ma-Ma have a lot in common. Both talk low, move slow and neither ever raises their voice cos they don’t have to – two sides of the same coin?
This is interesting cos one thing Judge Dredd never touches on is sexual politics. Ma-Ma isn’t just another perp. A former prostitute who only turned Godmother after taking eye-watering revenge on her pimp for mutilating her face, she is your classic “wronged woman,” as much victim as villain. Not that Dredd is remotely bothered by such nuances. Whether you’re a jaywalker or Judge Death, his response is always the same: “Stop or I shoot!”
You don’t tend to get “castration anxiety” in 2000AD either; a slyly satirical comment on this most macho yet celibate of comic book heroes? Dredd is conspicuously a virgin – who said “Like his fans”? Maybe there’s a lot of pent-up sexual frustration behind his “anger and control.” Sometimes a gun is just a gun. A great big not-at-all-Freudian gun. I’m telling you, lurking behind the helmet, blood and guts, Dredd is the unlikeliest feminist tract since The Krays. No, seriously…
Now that’s what I call a lock-down. Trapped inside a run-down cityblock (incongruously called “Peach Trees”), Dredd and Anderson have to fight their way through 200 storeys of gun-toting perps, punks and creeps just to stay alive. And no, I haven’t seen The Raid yet. Although from what I’ve heard, both owe a lot to Die Hard. Indeed, the pitch for this could easily be Dirty Harry meets Die Hard. In the future! I’d buy that for a dollar!
Dredd is now officially the second-best Judge Dredd movie ever. After Robocop of course which cleverly inverted Dredd’s premise. Dredd is a man who is basically a machine, whereas Robo was a machine who was basically a man, thus making him something Dredd cannot (and should not) ever be – sympathetic. Not that Dredd has much sympathy for light-fingered perps. Robocop shooting that rapist in the balls was pure Judge Dredd. As was his liberal use of the word “creep.” So when Dredd 209 warns “You have 20 seconds to comply…” Alex Garland was just returning the favour. Better that than five years in the cubes for grand larceny.
There are lots of fanpleasing throwaway references (perps, cubes, Resyk) which add texture and suggest a wider world beyond the necessarily claustrophobic confines of the limited budget as well as possible hints at sequels. Especially the graffiti – Chopper, Krysler, Kenny Who? (Sylvester Who? more like!) There’s even a dead Fattie complete with belly wheel! But thankfully no exposition about the judges at all. That can come later. Grud, it took the comics more than thirty years to get round to that!
Then there are all the cityblocks named after 2000AD art and script droids – Mills, O’Neill and Dredd creators Wagner and Ezquerra who also, rightly, get prominent first billing in the end credits as well. Now that’s respect!
And while some fans will inevitably gripe about shoulder pads and Lawmaster tyres (you know, the really important stuff!) the bikes looked good and the Judges’ uniforms were well thought out. Leather riot gear basically. No spandex and not a gold Versace codpiece to be seen! And that old exploding Lawgiver gag never gets tired.
Paul Leonard-Morgan’s pounding industrial score isn’t all that different from Geoff Barrow’s rejected soundtrack (since released as DROKK – Music Inspired By Mega City One and highly recommended, like Blade Runner re-scored by John Carpenter). This is more futuristic Lalo Schifrin, which couldn’t be more apt.
Dredd’s as brutal and uncompromising as Dredd himself. I just wish it was longer. But better 90 half-decent minutes than nothing, I suppose. And it’s much better than the first one. So a good, solid movie if nothing spectacular or particularly ambitious. But what it does it does well, adapting a very tricky property without completely drokking it up which is something of a minor miracle. A franchise-generating hit or not (and it’s looking increasingly unlikely) future cult success is assured and that could still mean sequels some day. So one for the fanboys, then. And this fanboy is eternally grateful. I know - what’s the world coming to?
Admirably self-contained, Dredd certainly deserves franchise-generating success if only because it’s one of the few comic book adaptations which doesn’t arrogantly presume sequels are inevitable. Cos they ain’t. And it’s a better film as a result. Dredd is very deliberately and economically set up as just another day in the life of its grim antihero; a routine drugs bust as far as he’s concerned. And, job done, bigger-budgeted sequels can expand on this into broader, weirder canvases such as The Cursed Earth and The Dark Judges.* The Grud Lord willing and Old Smelly don’t rise…
In a word – zarjaz!
* (Those guys weren’t Dark Judges were they? Or will be? And was it just me or did one of them sound suspiciously like Stallone…?)