Judgement Time for Dredd

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Last week, instead of watching busty Polish milkmaids being sexy with butter churns on the Eurovision Song Contest, I watched a 2012 action film starring Karl Urban. While the movie was less… visually indulgent than that, it was also better paced, more exciting, and had a better soundtrack. I also learnt that Olivia Thirlby is a bit lovely.

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And kind of rocks that dirty blonde dye job.

Based on the long-running British comic series of 50% the same name (the other 50% being the prefix “Judge”), Dredd is set in a semi-apocalyptic future America. Mega City One: billions of lives packed into a giant megatropolis stretching from Boston to Washington DC. Policing this sprawl of humanity are the Judges, peacekeepers who use invasive citywide surveillance, lethal force, and on-the-spot sentencing to try and curb the ever escalating crime rate. Every one of them is judge, jury, and frequently executioner (and don’t worry, the film doesn’t miss its opportunity to hammer home that particular expression). We follow Judge Dredd as he and rookie-on-assessment Judge Anderson respond to a triple homicide call at Peach Trees, a towering city block five times the height of normal skyscrapers. Their investigation attracts the attention of Ma Ma, dangerous gang leader and de facto ruler of the Peach Trees block. Allowing the two to leave would mean more Judges returning to end her rule, so Ma Ma traps Dredd and Anderson inside the block and orders her men to hunt them down.

Dredd has been compared a lot to The Raid. Both films came out around the same time and both use the same high concept framing device of a police force getting trapped inside a high-rise controlled by a dangerous gang and having to fight for their survival. While the premise is the same, each film develops it in their own direction. The Raid is a balletic display of the aggression and beauty of martial art pencak silat. Dredd is a straight up 80s-style action flick where the best defence is bullets and sarcasm.

The campy machismo of that decade’s best action pulp runs thick through Dredd. The film has a healthy supply of quips and one-liners, coincidence battles it out with deus ex machina for control of the plot, and the hero characters are almost entirely bulletproof. At one point Dredd runs away from three mini-guns unloading so much ammo at him that they annihilate an entire corner of this incredibly vast complex, killing untold hundreds. He staggers away without a graze on his stubbly chin. In fact, his immediate reaction is to hunt down and unceremoniously chuck the villain’s second-in-command off the central balcony.

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Pictured: Dredd, in no danger whatsoever.

What we have then is a better example of a revived 1980s action film than anything Stallone or Schwarzenegger have been involved with recently. Dredd establishes its scenario and then goes, a brisk 90 minutes of energy and movement. There is no lull or downtime, no padding or fat. No subplots to get hung up on or character motivation to get bogged down in. Just premise and resolution.

The plot contains story beats that are overly familiar, but Dredd earns a ton of points by pleasantly subverting them. Take the aforementioned second-in-command. He’s been established in such a fashion that we the audience expect to see him as a “mini-boss” encounter later on, the way that baddies in these films always are. Instead he is abruptly and unexpectedly dealt with and then we move on. There are several scenes just like this, where the traditional narrative of this genre leads you to expect a certain outcome that Dredd eagerly flips the finger to.

Anderson’s character arc is a good example of this: she shows early jitters when the job goes sour and is set up in multiple scenarios as the damsel in distress. Again, the film lets your expectation go hang. Instead of remaining timid or developing “inner strength” while externally remaining weak, Anderson grows into the aggressor role of a Judge, learning the ruthlessness and efficiency of Dredd. She never needs saving, she gets out of messes on her own, and she is more than capable of fucking people up.

This is also indicative of a more modern leaning in Dredd. Unlike the films that serve as its inspiration, women are not sidelined. Of the three main characters, two are women: Olivia Thirlby’s Anderson, and the chief antagonist Ma Ma. Lena Headey’s languid drugged-up performance blends well with the fear inherent in her subordinates; she seems relaxed and softly spoken, but nobody questions her for even a second.

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On performances, Karl Urban’s gravelly sarcasm is a perfect fit for the broader strokes of the script. Incidentally, neither the helmet nor the grimace ever come off. That’s proper dedication to accurately portraying your character.

The film generally shies away from CGI. There are two major areas you’ll find it – establishing shots of Mega City One and the Peach Trees tower block, and in the Slo Mo drug sequences – and this is where a certain cheapness lies. The establishing shots aren’t too bad, grimy landscapes that easily establish the scale of the world and how ultimately insignificant individuals are. You don’t spend too long with them, otherwise you’d notice the relative simplicity of the CGI architecture.

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By their very nature, the Slo Mo sequences don’t fair as well. One puff of the drug inhaler sees the picture contrast rocket up and playback speed drop to about 30%. Garish colour distortion taints everything. Now I personally quite like this. It’s cheap-looking yes, but in my brain it connects to some element of 90s culture, a kind of angular neon otherness seen in the Wipeout games and Prodigy music videos. One thing we can all agree on though is that the CGI blood in these scenes often looks a bit shite, weirdly rubbery and unreal.

That’s my only real complaint though because I really enjoyed the film. It’s not the best in the world, but nor is it trying to be. With its soundtrack of grumblingly oppressive electronica, its slick and efficient action scenes, and its game cast giving appropriately comic-book-broad performances, Dredd delivers a solid action romp. Popcorn cinema at its finest.

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