This review comes courtesy of our friends at the fantastic Light Cinema in New Brighton.
I am … not The Raid!
Well, it took a very long time to get here, but the leap for Judge Dredd from out of a 2D comic panel to authentic, downright faithful and 3D live-action has very definitely been worth the wait. Although I was as dismayed as any other 2000 AD devotee when Stallone removed the helmet for Danny Cannon back in 1995, I was still quite impressed with how Mega-City One’s super-Judge was handled in what was, you have to admit, a very ambitious gamble for a big tent-pole Hollywood blockbuster. Outside of the devoted, the majority of cinemagoers didn’t have a clue who the character was. Today, anyone found within the pages of even the most obscure short-run comic can be green-lit by a studio for the full cinematic treatment. Even with this being the case, the mood and style and sheer energy that propels Dredd 2012 pretty much asserts the refreshing notion that makers Alex Garland and Pete Travis simply aren’t concerned with those who don’t know the history of the character. Their dynamic new adaptation hits the ground running and doesn’t stop for one-hundred bone-breaking minutes and they just ask that you grab hold and try to stay on board. There are no unnecessary concessions made to the unacquainted and there is no laborious exposition ladled-on to reinforce this interpretation.
As with the lead character of the big man, himself, they seem to agree that actions speak far louder than words.
So, when we consider what came before, there is really no comparison between that unfairly maligned effort from Stallone and Danny Cannon and this sleek, shark-nosed torpedo of a movie.
With Alex (The Beach, Sunshine) Garland penning the streamlined, cut-to-the-bone screenplay with a spot-on adherence to precisely what makes tough future cop Judge Joseph Dredd tick and a director whose passion stems from an obsession with the original comics, all it took was an actor willing to submerge himself, quite literally, in the helmet and the big boots of the ultra-right-wing sanctioned assassin, and producers who wouldn’t baulk at the very necessary excesses of gratuitous violence that it demanded. The result is low-budget, high impact action film-making at its finest … outside of the Far East. Which naturally brings up the irksome, but easily dismissed similarity that Dredd shares with this year’s other great and hyper-nasty cop-thriller, Welshman Gareth Evans’ Indonesian snot-fest, The Raid: Redemption. By now, we all know how both films follow the same basic outline. A patrol of brick-hard cops, each with a rookie in their ranks, enter a drug kingpin’s high-rise fortress, get locked-in and have to battle, floor-by-blood-soaked-floor, with seemingly the entire population within amassed against them, in order to succeed in their mission.
But neither film is copying the other. It is merely a case of us waiting ages for a completely balls-to-the-wall, absolutely untethered and hardcore claustrophobic action movie to save us from the unstoppable slew of remakes, romcoms, Transforming robots and wimped-out family-pleasing adventures … and to then have two of them come along at once.
And that’s no bad thing in my book.
The Raid was a martial arts super-showcase that left you breathless and bruised. Dredd, on the other hand, is a future-shock blitzkrieg of judicial extremes in a world gone totally mad. It will also leave you breathless and bruised.
And hungry for more.
I am … the LAW!
Stretching all the way from what was once Boston to what was once Washington DC, Mega-City One is a huge sprawling urban jungle of infernal lawlessness. Patrolling this moral wasteland are the Judges – incredibly tough cops with the powers of judge, jury and executioner – but they are fighting a losing battle. A new hallucinogenic drug called Slo-Mo is flooding the streets. It makes the user view the world at a fraction of the speed of reality, and the much feared Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her barbaric clan are the ones controlling it. Operating from their base in an immensely tall slum-block, ironically called Peach Trees, they are gaining power, day by day, whilst the effects of the drug are wreaking havoc on the streets. Finding themselves locked in a deadly duel with her and her entire army after a bust leaves him and his rookie partner marooned in the tenement complex, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), the most dedicated and most fearsome cop in the City, and Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant psychic with no experience of tackling crime on the streets, have to fight every step of the way to survive when Ma-Ma shuts the building off from the outside world and turns her blood-crazed goons on them.
Rookies tend to get thrown in at the deep end with many of them not even surviving their first day on the beat … but it’s probably fair to say that not even this particular psychic newbie saw any of this coming when she got up for work today.
I am … incredibly hot in these leathers!
Karl Urban has had his fans since the days of his Middle-Earth warrior, Eomer, but barring a relentlessly dangerous villain in The Bourne Supremacy, and a wonderful turn as Dr. “Bones” McCoy in the big new J.J. Abrams take on Star Trek, he has never really managed to get his teeth into a role that he can definitively call his own. Until now. Having the courage to keep the helmet on, and clearly having spent weeks of intensive physical training just to keep his mouth in that tight-lipped, down-turned, rictus grimace that the crotchety king of comic-book scowls had patented back in Prog 2 of 2000 AD in 1977, means that Dredd’s legions of disciples finally have their icon perfectly personified. With his eyes permanently shielded, there is no possibility of Urban winking at the audience even if he actually wanted to. Exuding the raw physicality of a grumpy tiger and rasping his way through more ominous threats than Dirty Harry did in five San Franciscan outings, Urban stakes his claim on one of the genre’s most elusive of anti-heroes.
There is no haunted history to muck things up. He exists. That is enough. Garland’s script even makes a beautiful tease out of this lack of yawn-inducing Hollywood cliché. When we are first introduced to Anderson, she is in a sealed room. To prove her psychic skills to Dredd, the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) asks her to describe who is outside the room observing her, which she does, adroitly gauging Dredd’s tough, permanently angry demeanour … and then beginning to identify “something else … something beneath the anger.” But the character dissection is then cut short before anything stupidly soul-searching and totally unnecessary can be added.
In anybody else’s hands, Dredd’s strict and unyielding devotion to the Law would have been comical, but Urban delivers every verdict, every swift sentencing, every judgement with such deadpan conviction that he makes the blood run cold. One terrific example comes as he and Anderson first enter the Peach Trees block and Dredd spots an old vagrant begging on the deck. He gets his rookie partner to detail the offence and the correct punishment that should be administered and, simply because they have more pressing work to do, cautions the homeless guy with a sinister, “Don’t be here when we come out.” You don’t need me to tell you that this little aside sets up a glorious pay-off a bit later on ... and one that should please the satirical bloodlust of Paul Verhoeven fans no end.
Interestingly, it is great to see that the film even gets to riff on Verhoeven’s ED-209 orders from Robocop, with Dredd and some adversaries trading trigger-happy time-limits with which to comply with one-another. Robocop, itself, was massively influenced by Judge Dredd in the first place.
Some have commented that Urban’s Dredd is simply gruff, rough and one-note tough – which would be true to the comics, of course – but I think that he manages to provide some tremendous charisma as well. There is a sense of humour at work here, albeit one of a Stygian black variety. His actions and his attitude are as decidedly one-dimensional as they should be, but Urban adds some delicious touches to Dredd’s masked arsenal of Armageddon-sized animosity. Never robotic, he injects a personality that you can almost see glimmers of beneath that iconic helmet. And playing this character, that can’t have been an easy trick to pull off. He is confident, but not indestructible … so, unlike the heroes that we have been inundated with this year, there is a strong sense of fear for his survival once the tower’s Def-Con barriers seals him and Anderson in with a thousand cut-throats.
I am … not going to wear that helmet, because it’ll mess my hair up!
As the rookie-Judge Olivia Thirlby is equally as hard-driven and, ultimately, just as badass. Anderson’s Psi credentials are comprehensively known in Dredd lore, with the telepathic blonde enforcer often indulging in her own adventures. But here she has something to prove to her ever-testing tutor. Even in the thick of a fire-fight Dredd is assessing her performance, and waiting for her on-the-spot diagnosis of any given situation that they find themselves in – her Pass of Fail status forever hanging in the balance even when it begins to look increasingly unlikely that either of them will actually survive Training Day. A wonderful moment that combines the script’s gallows humour with a rare instance of Dredd actually revealing a gossamer-thin strand of compassion comes when he advises her that if he doesn’t make it back after one heroic sojourn, and she finds herself cornered, she should think about saving the last bullet for herself. “It’s your call,” he offers with brusque helpfulness.
Allowed to remove her helmet because it interferes with her mental powers, Anderson is, understandably, the most human of the Judges that we see. And this female vulnerability is certainly something that Garland and Travis exploit as the situation goes from bad to considerably worse for her. When the tables are turned and his rookie ends-up in dire straits, it is clear that Dredd can get even angrier. Just listen to that rumble when he growls his own counter-threats over the tower block’s public address system, and you, yourself, really begin to worry about how far that 18-certificate is going to go when she falls into the wrong hands.
Andersonis a great character, though. Her psychic abilities never feel forced or egged-on. She susses things out as and when the situation dictates, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that she can work out what is going to happen next. She has no unfair advantage once things turn nasty. Despite this, her relationship with her growling mentor is surprisingly touching at times. Of course there is never even a single second when Dredd drops his guard or consciously softens-up, but he constantly asks her if she is ready as each new dilemma presents itself, and this becomes a sort of begrudgingly affectionate mantra. Thirlby, who made an impression inJuno and The Wackness and was probably the only watchable element of the otherwise poor alien-slop, The Darkest Hour, totally eschews any of the naïveté or cuteness that you may have feared would cloud such an ill-matched partnership. She more than holds her own against the relentless firepower and danger, and the constant grubby, lecherous threats from the enemy. There is even a moment of poignancy when Anderson realises the deeper ramifications of her actions upon those caught up in the escalating conflict that cynics may cite as being contrived, but it is how Thirlby deals with it that makes all the difference, and makes it genuinely matter.
But if Thirlby is the figurehead of valiant purity, then the polar opposite is to be found in the only mother-figure that the film has to offer.
Lena Headey is a hugely sexy woman … although you’d have a hard time imagining that with the cleave-faced, shock-mopped drug-bitch from hell that she portrays so blisteringly well here as the demonic harridan, Ma-Ma. She may have roared to fame playing heroic women of class, devotion and heroic nobility in the likes of 300 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but she really does seem to prefer playing bad girls. Her ongoing role as Cersei Lannister in HBO’s lavish and truly awesome adaptation of Games of Thrones is potentially that of the Queen Bitch of all-time, but even she would have a tough time negotiating with Ma-Ma. Meryl Streep may have given heart and soul to her depiction of Margaret Thatcher, but if The Iron Lady’s saga is ever revisited in the future, then producers could do no better than recruiting Headey for the part. With an army at her beck and call, a callous disregard for human life – let’s face it, she’d say, if you ain’t working for me or buying from me, then you’re just in the way – and a mean streak that would make the Grand Canyon look as thin as Dredd’s pursed lips, she is a vengeful, cold-hearted and downright vicious antagonist. Dredd fighting a woman? That can’t be fair, can it? But Ma-Ma is no woman – she’s a meat-cleaver in human form. She has three men skinned alive and then tossed over the balcony when we first meet her.
We see her crime-sheet revealed as a highly stylised backstory via incendiary-fugue flashbacks. An ex-hooker who took one slicing too many and then turned the tables on her persecutor - “She feminised him … with her teeth” – and then became the sector’s most notorious and deadly, most ambitious aggressor by simply wiping-out the competition, she is like Keyser Soze ... only worse. Headey is a foul-mouthed and rabble-rousing, larger-than-life personality in real life – which I applaud, by the way – and she makes a fascinating adversary out of what was probably a purely clichéd character on-paper. You actually shudder when she is on-screen.
I am … thinking naughty thoughts about you!
The root-cause of all their woes is the perp that Dredd and Anderson capture early on in their foray into the 200-storey-high Peach Trees, which was initially just to investigate that trio of strange, skinless high-fall homicides. Kay (Wood Harris) becomes a major player in the dramatics of the fugitive Judges. Clearly a very dangerous felon – Anderson is 99% certain of his participation in the three murders, though apparently that is not a high enough figure to justify blowing his head off and just walking out of the front door – he gets hauled around as the Judges’ baggage from skirmish to skirmish, but we get to know him quite well in the process. Harris is excellent at playing the stooge, but he is also very inspired when it comes to baiting Anderson who, of course, thinks she has a handle on him because she can read his mind. But you really don’t want to know what’s going on inside his head, and he fully intends to make his fantasies a reality.
Forget the sanitised rubbish of Len Wiseman’s unwanted rehash of Total Recall. Forget all those costumed heroes who don’t actually kill the baddies, and whose antics can be enjoyed by all the family. Forget even the CG massacres and cod liver oil-slicked muscles of The Expendables, and the wire-taut adrenal speed of the new Bourne. This, bodycount-aficionados, is where it’s at. Dredd comes on like Paul Verhoeven and George Romero on steroids. Flayed bodies hit the deck after a fall of two-hundred floors, exploding like sacks of ripe tomatoes – check out the brain-sludge oozing out in a puddle beneath one’s pancaked noggin. Another brain is fried inside the perp’s skull via a special “Hotshot” round, and smoke issues out of his boiling mouth, eyes and ears as his head intricately turns to cinders. Bodies are regularly ripped and burst asunder by a variety of high-velocity weapons, and one head erupts like a human volcano. We see the cruel indentation left in a throat after Dredd conveniently crushes its owner’s windpipe. And the gloriously captured Slo-mo footage allows us to witness the shockwave of an explosion rippling across a man’s belly, and numerous bullets crashing through faces and torsos in super-slick ‘n’ splashy depictions of kaleidoscopic carnage that are so picturesque they should be on display in the Tate Gallery.
We see two hugely different means of Judge interrogation-in-the-field. Whilst Dredd adopts the beautifully cathartic bone-crunching routine, even down to a proud head-butt delivered with the helmet, the “good cop” approach from Anderson is also sure to leave a distinct impression, with her mind-games proving just as devastating to any would-be perp trying to hold something back. I think you’ll find that both techniques should have you cheering … with Anderson’s even evolving into a sort of Dr. Who-cum-Professor X style dose of cerebral surrealism.
Although I thought very little of his 2008 multiple-view assassination thriller, Vantage Point, Pete Travis totally reverses my opinion of him with the cinematic knuckle-duster of Dredd. He handles the action with his finger permanently pressing down on the button marked Maximum Annihilation. Even before corridors and stairwells become heaving slaughterhouses, he has taken us on a breakneck, high-speed chase through the city streets as Dredd pursues a gang in a truck just after he’s had his breakfast, totally establishing the character’s remorseless attitude, and the wince-inducing propensity for collateral damage that we will witness much of in this furious society. And when Ma-Ma opts to bring out the big guns, be prepared to go looking on the floor for your jaw. In a pyrotechnic delight, two mini-gun canons turn an entire floor of Peach Trees into Swiss cheese, with Dredd running, hell-for-leather through the ceaseless fusillade on what is sure to be every ammo-junkie’s wet-dream of the year.
I am … much, much better than Stallone’s version!
Cannon’s earlier interpretation of Judge Dredd has several things going for it. There were the Versace costumes that did, in fact, look more faithful to the source than the rugged biker leathers/body-armour combo on show here (which nobody can deny are obviously far more practical and credible than wearing a colossal golden eagle on one shoulder and a chain that probably weighs more than Thor’s mighty hammer, Mjolnir, over the chest), the teeming and colourful immensity of Mega-City One, a cameo appearance by the Angel Gang and, most enduring of all, Alan Silvestri’s truly thunderous and indomitably chest-beating score. However, this time out, the film takes a leaf out Christopher Nolan’s rule-book for adapting comic book heroes and putting them in as realistic a world as possible. The CG-enhanced environs of the sweaty, heat-hazed suburbs of Cape Town and Johannesburg are obviously more immediately believable than the retina-seducing cityscapes that we normally see in such futuristic visions. The festering urban warren is mapped-out on an endless grid, the superscrapers utterly huge but somehow much more authentic because of the apparent pattern of their placement. They don’t look like entirely CG creations – they look real and lived-in, the grit and grime of a world on the brink of the holocaust literally choking the image. A great overhead shot floats us over the horizon-less billiard table of a city to the Halls of Justice, with almost microscopic people scurrying about its grand steps like ants. Unlike the cartoon show of Lucas’ Coruscant, this has the texture and parched atmosphere of a real, tangible place.
Although we are in a land blighted by nuclear war, this doesn’t feel like some far-flung point in the future. The dusty, fetid air is not filled with hover-craft or jet-cars – just a few Judge surveillance drones and the odd glider punctuate the smog. In what was once thought of as being controversial, the vehicles are pretty much what we have today. The big Lawmaster bikes of the comic and the Stallone version have been replaced with meaty machines of a more regular variety, a Suzuki GSX750S, albeit bedecked with a cool retro-futuristic front shield-piece that looks reminiscent of the turbo-bikes from the old Battlestar Galactica but, man, they look good. No longer those cumbersome or clumsy monsters, but fast, aerodynamic and agile speed-demons that whip in and out of traffic like heat-seeking cyclones.
We don’t actually encounter any robots in this story … but that isn’t to say that there aren’t any around, and I could certainly see their appearance in the next instalment.
The depiction of this sad and soulless society is valid, sobering and full of the sort of random chaos that we all, ahem, dread. But check out the little clean-up service that comes around to collect the dead bodies from a shopping mall after the opening shootout. Clinical, convenient and … well, polite. There was something a bit more high-tech in Logan’s Run … but in a crime-ridden, gang-ruled battleground like this, I can imagine such a Judicial Janitorial Team featuring in a future episode of Grime Busters.
I am … the music man!
With such a different attitude being struck from that of Danny Cannon’s, there is simply no room for a strident heroic fanfare of a score a la Alan Silvestri. Thus, in-keeping with the grungy, chaotic, live-or-die squalor of this dusty Mega-City One and the far more dangerous, far less flamboyant perps who dominate it, the score from Paul Leonard-Morgan (Limitless, Spooks) is a punishing blend of fuzzy techno, warped, industrial synth, sizzling electric guitars and pounding drums and brazen, all-encompassing, all-grinding electronica. Anchored by a steady, insistent beat that reminds me of vintage John Carpenter in its catchy minimalist determination (with little hints of Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13 and They Live), and driven by a sense of molten, unstoppable fury, this is dirty, bloody and downright addictive. Like Bourne’s John Powell fused with an ensemble of jamming Terminators. There are outstanding tracks of ethereal beauty, such as It’s All A Deep End and Ma-Ma’s Requiem – a dreamcast in-synch with the deadly allure of the potent visual gloss of the effects of Slo-Mo - and there are pulse-pounding, machine-like anthems of fist-tightening intensity like Lockdown, for when the two stranded Judges first realise their ghastly predicament and decide to fight fire with fire, and the blistering, gut-level mission statement of Judge, Jury and Executioner.
Some might not like the grungy-rock ‘n’ techno wallop but this score fits the dangerous, loud and volatile world of the new Dredd perfectly. Musical blood and thunder, with elements of reality-shifting trance-euphoria.
I am … massively in love with this movie!
Filmed in 3D from the get-go, I would say that Dredd is one of the best examples of its use to date, and it totally complements the fabulous cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), whose self-designed laptop-sized handheld camera flows through Peach Trees with fluid grace. Not overcrowded with the gimmicky stuff, it uses the third dimension superbly. We are placed right in the thick of the ballistics, with walls and bodies exploding with debris and gobbets of grue all around us, and the scintillating Slo-Mo sequences are a hippy-trippy dream with coruscating lights and colours and even bath-water spraying blissfully out of the screen so enticingly that you long to pluck them from the air. The views up or down the many floors inside of Peach Trees are nicely head-spinnng already, but when we follow drug-addled fallers all the way down we get a new appreciation of vertigo. And those amazing mini-guns … when they let rip, there are some splendidly composed images of flame-spewing bullets, helter-skelter bodies caught up in their sizzling trajectory and achingly clear shots from just beside the deranged shooters themselves. Another more subtle usage of the 3D, but one that is simply mesmerising to look at is when we see Ma-Ma discussing their Judge-related problems with her lieutenant, Caleb (Warrick Grier), from outside her high-rise window – the glass barrier so crisply poised before us that we could probably scratch our names in it.
And speaking of names, the Dredd cognoscenti will no doubt enjoy clocking all the in-jokes and references to artists and writers who worked on it adorned around the cityscape. There are also numerous characters (Krysler, Fergee, Lex, Alvarez and Chan) and some familiar jargon slapped around the image, and plenty of gaudy signposts towards a certain graffiti artist, to keep the devoted amused in the few lulls that occur between the carnage.
If what Alex Garland says of the potential trilogy (and please may this come to pass) is true, then this introductory episode of Dredd is to show us what is basically a “day in the life of” for these guys. The second instalment would be to open up this future world and bring in the Cursed Earth and the Angel Gang, and the grander mythology of the Judges and the ferocious society they fight to control. And the third entry – oh wow – is the one that uber-fans have really been anticipating … the saga of the trans-dimensional Judge Death and his apocalyptic cohorts coming to Mega-City One to eradicate all life, itself, as it has been deemed, in their realm, that crime is only committed by the living – and therefore humanity needs to be judged en masse. Admittedly, after this pretty un-fantastical opening gambit, that concept may seem stratospherically over-the-top for newbies just discovering the power of Judge Dredd for the first time, but this is a character and an environment that is constantly full of surprises. The entire irradiated (or Cursed) Earth situation pretty much dictates that all bets are off and that the Judges can literally come up against anything on the means streets of the metropolis. The pages of the comic were filled with mutants, aliens, cyborgs, cannibals, dinosaurs and rampaging droids, and Dredd could encounter any or all of them throughout the course of a day’s judging. Bring it on, I say.
It’s Judgement Time, folks!
Dreddis, hands-down, a tour de force of miasmic mayhem, Slo-Mo mutilation and blisteringly cool, hard-knock, on-the-spot summary justice. Karl Urban doesn’t need his “Hotshot” rounds to burn the screen, and his brooding intensity as Mega-City One’s most unfriendly and unforgiving saviour is simply peerless. Long may he carry the DNA-locked Lawgiver and serve judgement. He has finally become a Mega-Star!
He is Judge Dredd.
And he is the Law.
Like their title character, Alex Garland and Pete Travis take no prisoners. With Dredd creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra providing consultancy duties on this, and probably the next instalments as well, it would appear that the future remains in safe, but undoubtedly bloody hands.
This is a powerhouse of a movie that takes a much-loved character and puts flesh on his bones and a bludgeoning personality inside the helmet, and provides him with a raw and ferocious tale that does him complete justice. In a movie-world of endless compromise, Dredd doesn’t, and becomes one of the leading cinematic treats of the year as a result.
An awesome movie that needs to be seen and savoured on the big screen. As often as you can.
I am … possibly the best SF/Action movie of 2012!
Not only do fans of Joe Dredd get the big-screen incarnation that they have always longed for, but they get it with genuinely cool 3D and brimming with uber-nasty violence and lashings of comic-book gore! Karl Urban finally gets the sort of role that many of us knew he deserved after witnessing him charging at the head of the Rohirrim, and determinedly pursuing Jason Bourne like some hitman from Hell. He is exactly the sort of Dredd that we deserved.
After The Avengers blew us away with crowd-pleasing, multiplex-heaving superheroics, The Amazing Spider-Man surprised us by being, well, amazing, and The Dark Knight Rises delivered an emotional climax to possibly the greatest costumed trilogy filmed so far, it is simply great to sit back and revel in an action-adventure for grownups. Dredd fires on all cylinders and doesn’t disappoint in any category. Urban and Olivia Thirlby are outstanding. Headey proves that there is nobody out there who can be a bitch with anywhere near the same level of boo-hissable venom. Garland’s screenplay simmers with brutality, single-minded and strongly linear yet bursting with hints of a much wider world just itching to be explored. Travis directs with incredible flair, depicting a fantastically vibrant yet claustrophobic environment in which the kid-gloves are most assuredly off, and reveals a tremendous sense of hyper-kinetic exhilaration. The Slo-Mo scenes are simply gorgeous and wildly inventive, and the 3D is absolutely superb. Yes, the basic premise is almost identical to Gareth Evans’ The Raid but this is Judge Dredd and, for my money, he does it better.
We need more of this!
I can’t recommend Dredd enough, folks. For me, personally, this has been my favourite film of the year … thus far. For sheer excitement, Skyfall has a tough act to follow.
Very highly recommended indeed.