His Name Is Joe
‘Judge Dredd is going onto the stairwell to confront his suspects. Anyone with a sensitive disposition should look away now.’ John Wagner, Judge Dredd – On The Job
I don't remember ever walking out of a film which I have paid to see; this is probably a result of desensitisation, informed choices of viewing, persistent optimism and (mostly) stinginess. Others are not so dedicated and I especially recall the way in which David Cronenberg's Crash and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris managed to drive audiences out mid-screening. Usually, though, people walking from films is quite rare – so far as I notice these things – but my attention was caught by two people departing from Pete Travis's Dredd round about the midway point. I wonder what it was about this film that impelled them to leave – quite how was this film different to their expectations? Did they go in on a whim, with no preconceptions as to what was coming? Or were they perhaps the two people in the world who actually enjoyed the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd, and had expected a remake?
(The need to put some distance between itself and the deservedly vilified 1995 movie is, presumably, the reason why this film doesn't use the full title of the 2000AD comic strip it's based on. Fair enough, but it's still rather like releasing a Captain America movie just called America or a Superman movie just called Man. I suppose anyone who's a Dredd fan will be sufficiently aware of the new movie for it not to make much difference.)
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I must be upfront and reveal I have followed the Judge Dredd comic strip for well over a quarter of a century; my shelves groan under the weight of nearly thirty volumes of collected editions of Dredd stories. So I'm the target audience for this film, and have awaited it with a considerable degree of anticipation. One big plus for this film is the casting. Now, we’re talking about a legendary British-created action hero, a ferociously tough character (with, of course, a flawless American accent). I would have said there was only one name on the casting wishlist, but apparently Mr Statham was otherwise engaged. Instead, Karl Urban plays Dredd – a competent performer for this kind of film, but more significantly someone familiar enough with the strip to understand the importance of keeping his helmet on and his face covered throughout. You never see Judge Dredd's face in the comic – it's one of the things that the 1995 film disregarded and drew enormous flak for. The new movie seems more concerned with being faithful than being commercial, which is partly what makes it interesting.
Some time in the not too distant future, America has become an irradiated wasteland, with hundreds of millions of people crammed into Mega-City One, a hellish metropolis on the east coast. What order exists is maintained solely through the efforts of the Justice Department – the de facto government, consisting of ruthless, brutal Judges with the power of instant sentencing. Foremost amongst these is Judge Dredd (Urban), who spends his days cruising the streets on a machine-gun-toting motorbike, administering justice via the six types of special bullet his side-arm dispenses. As the film opens, Dredd is given a special assignment: the assessment of rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), whose fitness for duty is questionable, but whose mutant telepathic abilities could make her a useful asset. Their patrol takes them to Peach Trees, one of the city's massive residential blocks. They discover the block is being run by vicious gang boss Ma Ma (Lena Headey) as a private fiefdom, and apprehend a suspect who could testify against her – but before they can drag him off for interrogation, Ma Ma seals the block and unleashes the local gangs against the two Judges...
At this point we should probably address the whole 'Dredd and The Raid: Separated at Birth' issue. Yes, there is a striking resemblance between the plots of these two films, and yes, they are both notable for some of the most intense, uncompromising violence seen in any recent action movie. But that's really it: I really think this just an odd case of convergence rather than a conscious rip-off, and stylistically the films are very distinct (Dredd also owes something of a debt to Die Hard and Assault on Precinct 13). The Raid was a lean, stripped-down, almost raw piece of work, while Dredd is much more obviously stylish and designed – and while The Raid's violence was balletic and fluid, in Dredd it is crunching and weighty, almost industrial.
Perhaps this is the reason why the couple at the screening I went to decided on an early night, as this movie is a strong 18 and, as such, is considerably bloodier than the typical comic-book adaptation. Characters get skinned alive, set on fire, and have their eyes gouged out on-screen, and there's another startling sequence where more than one person gets a bullet through the face in slow motion. The evident care and attention which has gone into making these moments visually distinctive and, from a certain point of view, rather beautiful, suggests firstly that the director has a rather idiosyncratic outlook on life, and secondly that a lot of people are going to find this film deeply objectionable and quite possibly morally reprehensible.
But then I suppose this is just another demonstration of the movie's fidelity to the comic, which was for many years driven by the tension between Judge Dredd's dual role as both main character, and fascist enforcer of a totalitarian regime. For the most part the movie soft-pedals the latter element, but when it does address it, it does so with a much harder edge than the comic traditionally has: we see Judges summarily executing prisoners, and at one point Dredd embarks upon beating information out of a suspect. For me the film doesn't have the knowing self-awareness of its own contradictions that the strip has in its best periods, but I suspect the makers were desperate to avoid appearing arch or self-mocking.
It's interesting that the movie departs quite substantially from the detail of the comic, while still somehow retaining much of its essential tone. The movie dials the Mega-City's weirdness and futuricity down to a startling degree: the vehicles and clothes could be contemporary a lot of the time, while the buildings and structures also have a contemporary look to them – very much a more Ron Smith take on the aesthetic than a Carlos Ezquerra one. Similarly, while the Dredd costume is instantly recognisable, it's much more like an early Brett Ewins Dredd than the classic Mike McMahon visualisation of the character. There are lots of little changes to the background and characters, as well – most obviously, the comic's swearing-avoidance technique of using made-up profanities like 'Drokk!' and 'Stomm!' is dispensed with – but also a lot of background in-jokes aimed solely at people like me. This is almost wholly confined to the set-dressing, though: Dredd strongly reminded me of Batman Begins in the way it takes a sprawling, often preposterous mythology and pares it down to something plausible and serious. For fans, it's notable just what this movie doesn't include: Dredd's clone heritage, the origins of his world, any supporting characters other than Anderson, or indeed any of the major Dredd villains – none of these feature or are even mentioned.
And yet the character up on screen is indisputably the real Judge Dredd. I was a little dubious when I first heard that Karl Urban would be playing Dredd. Did he have the chin for the part? More importantly, would he sound like Dredd? At which point I realised I'd no idea what Dredd's voice actually sounds like, but that I'd still know instantly if they got it wrong. Well, Urban pretty much gets it right, and not just the voice. To begin with I thought he was not quite laconic enough, or deadpan enough, but his performance definitely grew on me. Towards the end he was throwing people out of windows and declaring himself to be the law, and I realised that I'd bought into it completely: this is about as good a performance as Dredd as one can imagine.
I'm not so sure about the film's version of Anderson, to be honest – Olivia Thirlby is pretty good, but beyond the fact she's a blonde female telepath this is a different character from the one in the comic. (Anderson's appearance has changed a lot in the thirty years she's been in the strip – the Brett Ewins version in particular had a definite formative effect on my adolescent libido – but I don't recall her ever looking much like Thirlby.) Nevertheless, if this film does well enough in the US to earn a sequel, it's difficult to imagine her not being in it. Attempting to justify Stallone taking the helmet off in 1995, Danny Cannon made the point that Dredd himself isn't really a character, he's a monolithic icon – it's easy to tell stories with him, but difficult to tell stories about him. A full-length film narrative needs a human being in it, hence the more humanised Stallone Dredd. Much as I enjoyed Urban's performance as Dredd, I can't see him carrying a film solo – you need another character for the audience to identify with.
If part of Dredd's success is down to the presence of Thirlby as Anderson, then it also owes a debt to the striking visual style it possesses. Much of this is enabled through the plot device of a narcotic which slows down the perception of time – hence some remarkable slow-motion 3D sequences, a couple of which are extremely grisly. Finding a replacement for this gimmick will be another challenge, should the sequel go ahead, and there are a few other areas where this film could be improved upon – in particular, there's a subplot here about corruption inside Justice Department which didn't feel like an organic part of the story.
I turned up to this film with rather more foreboding than anticipation, bad memories of Stallone and good memories of The Raid both lingering. However, even before the title card, Dredd's bleakness and energy and evident love of the source material had started to win me over. I saw this movie very much from the point-of-view of a Dredd fan, but as luck would have it I was accompanied by my good friend Shaolin Rasta, who was completely unaware of the character beforehand. He enjoyed it too, even if he blanched a bit at some of the more extreme violence: which to me suggests that this film will find a mainstream audience, though possibly a limited one. This is very much a hard-core action movie with some neat SF trappings draped around it, and a slightly unusual central character, and as such it's very successful. The challenge for any future productions with this team and this world will be to take all the very real virtues of Dredd and use them to tell a story with genuine ideas and something to actually say for itself. But this movie is a good first step and a terrific introduction to the character.