(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Warrick Grier, Domhnall Gleeson, Rakie Ayola, Joe Vaz, Scott Sparrow, Nicole Bailey, Langley Kirkwood, Edwin Perry, Karl Thaning, Michele Levin, Luke Tyler, Junior Singo. Directed by Pete Travis
As far as dystopian futures go, few have captured one so bleak as the long-running British comic book Judge Dredd. In its 35 year publishing history it has managed to come up with a rich smorgasbord of characters and a well-developed backstory that acts not only as hardcore action sci-fi comic but also as pointed social commentary as well. It was brought to the screen in 1995 with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role; the movie tanked and alienated not only fans of the source material (which it desecrated to be honest) but general movie audiences as well.
The new film is much closer to the tone and look of the comic, which is good news. In the future of Judge Dredd (Urban), most of the planet is an irradiated wasteland with people living in gigantic cities. Mega City One, population 800 million, is the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, basically from Boston to Washington DC. Gigantic skyscrapers, called “Blocks” act as multi-use facilities (apartments with shopping, restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment) on steroids.
With that many people in such an enclosed space, the streets are near-anarchy. Crime is rampant and the Department of Justice can only investigate about 6% of it. Doing that are the Judges – a combination of motorcycle cop, detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Judges mete justice on the spot, ranging from imprisonment in iso-cubes to death. In order to do the latter, they have guns coded to their DNA that fire an astonishing array of firepower from normal bullets to stun grenades to incendiary missiles.
Dredd is asked by the Chief Judge (Ayola) to take out rookie Judge Anderson (Thirlby) whose proximity to the radioactive wasteland rendered her psychic – the most powerful one the Department of Justice has ever encountered. Dredd will be responsible for her evaluation, either failing her and washing her out of the program or passing her into the ranks of the Judges. He’s not too keen on doing it – her test scores didn’t make the cut and in the eyes of Dredd (which see things entirely in black and white) a fail is a fail.
Their first call takes them to a low-income block where unemployment is at 96%. Three bodies have plummeted to the ground-floor atrium with predictably messy results. Dredd notices that one of the corpses has signs that he was on slo-mo – a drug that slows down the perception of time to 1% of normal – which to him means that this was not suicide but homicide. They make a raid on an apartment where the stuff is distributed and capture Kay (Harris), a high-end dealer with the intention of bringing him in for questioning.
The tower is actually run by a gang, the Ma-Ma Clan, so-named for their founder Ma-Ma (Headey), an ex-prostitute with a wicked scar on her face. She is solely responsible for the supply of slo-mo for the entire city and while she would have been fine with the Judges killing Kay in a raid (a price of doing business in Ma-Ma’s eyes), she is not fine with Kay giving up details on her operation that will bring the Judges down on her like the apocalypse. So she locks down the building and gives her gang orders to shoot to kill. Now Dredd and Anderson are trapped in a gauntlet where trigger-happy gunmen lurk around every corner and help is not within reach.
Writer Alex Garland has concocted a story that remain true to the action elements of the comic books, it is a little light on the social satire. Dredd in the comic books is a humorless ultra-violent appendage of a fascist society who has no life beyond that of his calling; we rarely see him off-duty and we never see his face (think of it as all Batman and no Bruce Wayne). There is speculation among fans that he sleeps with his helmet on.
Urban captures this perfectly. While we only see the bottom third of his face, his twisted expressions are always grim, his movements deliberate and nearly robotic and his posture arrogant. His belief in the Law is absolute and unyielding; if the sentences are harsh he doesn’t argue with it. Whatever Dredd’s opinions are of his world he keeps to himself; he is the Arm of the Law and the Hammer of Justice. That’s all he really needs.
Anderson has more of a conscience. Having grown up in a low-income block, she feels more empathy for the people who live there. Dredd’s concern throughout the film is that she isn’t tough or ruthless enough to make the hard choices. Thirlby often looks out of place in a Judge’s uniform, being smaller than most of the other Judges in the film, but she pulls off the attitude nicely with a heaping helping of self-doubt.; Anderson herself isn’t sure she’s in the right job. She’s less about the law and more about justice.
The visual of Mega City One is a bit of a mixed bag for me. It looks like a modern 21st century city for the most part with internal combustion engine cars that look not unlike the sedans, coupes and mini-vans of 2012 – while customizing the vehicles a little might have been more expensive, it would have made the visuals more believable. It’s hard to believe that the vehicles of a society 100 years from now would have changed so little in the intervening period.
The slo-mo effects are great however. There is a beauty to them which is a nice juxtaposition to the bleak city and block we see throughout. You can almost understand why the junkies would much rather see the world through slo-mo than the reality of it.
It’s a brutal world but then again a world that crowded would have to be. Still, locking up Dredd and Anderson in an impregnable fortress reminded me of the hit Indonesian action film from earlier this year The Raid: Redemption. While that film had amazing martial arts battles interspersed with the gun fights, there is little beyond using different kinds of weapons here in an endless series of shoot-em-ups once the blast doors close. In that sense, the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner a little bit. Still, the visuals are good, the action is solid and as mindless entertainment the movie succeeds nicely. The audience hasn’t been there for Dredd sadly but hopefully some who gave the movie a miss will reconsider. It’s solid, satisfying entertainment.
REASONS TO GO: Closer to the comic book than the Stallone version. Satisfying visually. Urban and Thirlby make a good team.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be somewhat more brutal than American audiences are used to.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence is pretty intense – people fall from great heights and get shot up pretty good. There’s also plenty of foul language, drug use and just a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karl Urban’s face is always obscured by the helmet; we never see anything other than his mouth, jaw and chin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The movie is getting mixed reviews but leaning towards the positive..
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption
CLINT EASTWOOD LOVERS: Urban based his vocal interpretation on Clint Eastwood, which is fitting since the character of Judge Dredd was based on Eastwood’s character in the TV show “Rawhide” – in the comic book Dredd even lives on Rowdy Yates block in reference to the character!
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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