Are you alone as you sit down to read this? Have a look around just to be sure nobody’s around because I have a secret to share…Okay, ready?
I have a bit of a soft spot for the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie Judge Dredd.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing like the comics, horribly cheesy, features far too much Rob Schneider and is generally a bit naff. However, I’m a big Stallone fan and I can enjoy the film because I’ve completely divorced it from the source material.
Over 15 years later Dredd returns to the big screen, and the new film is a very different beast.
In a desolate, post-war future most of the world has been transformed into a desolate wasteland known as the Cursed Earth, mankind has withdrawn into immense, sprawling cities, chief among them Mega City One, which covers the North East corner of what used to be the USA. The city is made up of massive tower blocks that rise above the remnants of the old cities and towns, and due to the vast size and sheer number of inhabitants (800 million) the city is a violent, crime riddled dystopia.
The law is enforced by the Judges, heavily armed cops who are able to dispense justice on the spot, serving as judge, jury and executioner . One of the best is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a tough, grizzled veteran who is charged with evaluating a rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who effected by the residual radiation from the war has mutated to possess psychic abilities. Dredd is skeptical of how she’ll manage, but takes her out into the field.
They arrive at the scene of a grisly triple homicide at the Peach Trees block where they arrest a gang member responsible for the killings, Kay (Wood Harris), and plan to take him back to the hall of justice. Kay works for Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a vicious gang leader who’s at the centre of a new drug sweeping the city, slo-mo, which makes time slow down for the user. She ordered the killing of the three men who represented a rival gang. On hearing that Kay is being taken for interrogation she locks the block down, sealing Dredd and Anderson within and ordering all gang members to take them out.
Heavily outnumbered, Dredd and Anderson need to find a way out, fight off the gang and bring Ma-Ma to justice, and begin to fight their way up the tower.
I really dug this film, at a little over 90 minutes its a very pacy, explosive action movie with a relatively simple plot reminiscent of this year’s The Raid. The film opens with a short voice over from Dredd that sets up the future world and then pitches us right into the action with a car chase as Dredd takes out a couple of perps. Then he meets Anderson, they go to the building and its not long before it all goes to hell for them. Its not a film that hangs about.
One of the things I really liked is that it comes a lot closer to capturing the tone of the comics, which was always a darkly humourous, hyper-violent and misanthropic vision of the future. Forget Mos Eisley, Mega City One is the ultimate hive of scum and villainy. The city is realized in a pretty cool way, rejecting some of the comics’ more OTT stylings and instead crafting a more realistic city where the towering blocks rise among the ruins of the old world (although I was disappointed that they didn’t follow the comic tradition of having blocks named after celebrities).
A similar attitude is taken to the look of the Judges and their gear, which is a more realistic version of the comics and ensures they avoid the campness of the Stallone flick. The iconic helmets remain (and Dredd’s stays on this time, fans will be happy to hear) but the rest of the gear is toned down a bit, the shoulder pads aren’t as impractically massive and the uniform is replaced with armour which makes sense given the situations the Judges find themselves in.
As the man himself Urban is well cast, he has physical presence and delivers Dredd’s lines in a suitably gruff, tough manner reminiscent of the character’s inspiration, Clint Eastwood. With half his face covered its a tough job to convey emotions, and Dredd is quite reserved but Urban manages in the way he shifts his jaw to hint at Dredd’s inner rage and struggles to control it, as well as delivering many of his lines with a dark, sardonic wit.
Urban is good casting because while a fairly established actor is not a mega star who’s face would have to be revealed as was the case in ’95. He does a very good job, convincing as the hard as nails Judge and making the fascistic Dredd likable.
Urban is ably supported by Thirlby as Anderson. Thirlby’s slight frame and slightly elfin features lend her a sense of fragility that contrasts nicely with Dredd who at times appears to be a relentless force of nature. However, that’s not to say Anderson is some weak damsel-in-distress figure, as at times she shows real toughness and a hard streak within. She is however less comfortable and cold blooded than Dredd is when dispensing justice and is forced to meet the family of one perp she wastes.
She’s a believable rookie, showing the skills she’s been taught but also the inexperience when called on to use them, and its easy to see why she impresses Dredd over the course of the film. She’s the audience’s entrance point into the world, someone who’s not so at ease with the killing and bloodshed as Dredd and raises interesting questions about the film’s hero as well. Was he once a hesitant rookie? Or was he always the ruthless lawman?
Her psychic abilities are a nice touch, she scans Dredd and there’s a hint that something lies beneath his rage and control, and it comes in handy throughout the film. It really helps develop her scenes with Kay, who attempts to rattle her by thinking of her sexually and in a darker way that isn’t revealed to the audience. Its also central to what I think is one of the film’s best, and most powerful scenes, where after Dredd roughs him up, Anderson takes over and psychically interrogates him. We get a brief glimpse of the discussion within his head, and just as it looks like Anderson is going to become a victim she flips it. The scene is slightly uncomfortable, but the filmmakers show good judgement in not showing us all of what happens in his head, just the real world consequences. Cutting back into the room to see a broken suspect and a steely, in control Anderson.
Thirlby is convincing in all aspects, as a shaky, unsure newcomer and the tough core that lies within.
As the villain, Headey is good value, making her Ma-Ma a grim, unstable and vindictive crime boss. She doesn’t get that much screen time but what she does get she uses extremely well, making Ma-Ma a vile, menacing villain.
The film is shot wonderfully well, the slo-mo drug giving the director a chance to shoot these extremely slow, strangely beautiful sequences where water drops, glass shards and smoke swirl around slowly in an odd, dream-like way. The actions sequences have a real hardcore, gory edge to them and there are a couple of wince inducing moments, but its nice to see a film which doesn’t try and soften the blows. The violence here is brutal, real and utterly compelling.
I was a little miffed that I had to see it in 3D, but I must say that, while I’m still against the whole 3D thing, this was one of the better uses of it- the slo-mo sequences in particular benefited from it and for much of the film it wasn’t intrusive, which is nice.
Verdict: Urban does very well as the badass Judge and the interplay between the gruff veteran and the shaky rookie is largely well handled and peformed. The film’s world is wonderfully created, with the filmmakers respecting the source material without being shackled to it, allowing them to change things so they work better in a different medium. The simple plot works for the gruff, no-nonsense character and its extremely good fun, with hard hitting action sequences and some nice visuals. Would quite like to see the lawman return to the big screen again. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.