It may not have quite blasted the tits off worldwide audiences, but Dredd was a damn good film. It also shared quite a lot with Indonesian kung-fu flick, The Raid. Well, how about instead of fighting for the crown of the tower siege movie, how about the two put aside their similarities and work together. That way, Dredd might get a sequel, and that Welsh dude who directed The Raid can have a break from speaking Indonesian.
In this comic, Dredd faces his greatest enemy…
I’m not going to moan about the ridiculous wallet-raping that happens when you go to the cinema. I would gladly paid for gallery seats had I intended to alienate my friends and live a life of solitude. You see, I’m a fan of Judge Dredd in the same way that an Essex girl is a fan of fake tan. It’s engraved in my DNA.
DNA, of course, is also the outfit that has brought us this latest Dredd film. ‘Who’s Deeyennay?’ I hear you ask. Well it’s no MGM or Warner Bros so you might be forgiven for not having heard of it. DNA Films is a British company responsible for a string of very competent films, some of them classics such as zombies-with-the-runs, 28 Days Later and misleadingly-titled The Last King of Scotland, some of them aren’t quite classics, but are still very decent, such as blind-’em-up Sunshine and the suicidally depressing Never Let Me Go. It’s a small company as far as movie studios go, with form for producing good films without breaking the bank. Nevertheless I’m sure many fanboy sphincters collectively clenched when it was announced that Dredd was to be produced on a shoestring budget of roughly $45 million USD (considering the blockbuster standard of ~$150 million USD).
Well we should have learnt by now not to assume that firing coins out of a Gatling gun does necessarily a good film make. Take the turgid dung rollercoaster that was John Carter as a particularly steaming example of how to waste obscene amounts of money on a stinker. We’ve also got on-side our script by Alex Garland, who is by now surely the undisputed scriptwriting master of turning paper money into elastic without leaving a wooden byproduct (the aforementioned 28 Days Later and Sunshine will elaborate).
Let me set minds at ease when I say that the budget need not have ever been a concern. Whilst the story has economically been reined in to an enclosed space, that is, the tower block in which most of it takes place, not at any point does the CGI show its seams, the props show their falseness or the pyrotechnics look like torn Sainsbury’s bags. It is completely convincing.
The bookend scenes at the beginning and end of the film showing panoramic sweeps of Mega City One’s overpopulated cityscape will likely evoke memories of District 9. It’s a definite departure from the chunky gherkin tower blocks from the comics, instead a CGI-augmented revision of South African real-world megapolises, Johannesburg and Cape Town. If you’ve seen District 9, you’ll recognise that same seamless mixture of real-world vistas and digital trickery, with the protective shimmer of the South African heat mirage ensuring that you never quite see through the illusion. Sweeps over dilapidated townships nestled within the city walls are strikingly contrasted against the colossal ‘Blocks’, which dwarf even the skyscrapers beneath them, like a graphic equaliser in architectural form.
Setting the story within one of these Blocks is a fitting start to a new Dredd franchise. One of the most prominent characteristics of Mega City One across the comics is the claustrophobia, and the crimes of desperation that come packaged with a heaving population. America is an irradiated wasteland, with its entire population crammed into Mega Cities scarcely plonked around the deserts of the old country. Mega City One, we’re told by Karl Urban’s cold voice-over at the film’s opening, is “800 million people living in the ruins of the Old World.” This place is crowded. Even the comics only put it at 400 million (or a ‘mere’ 50 million after the Day Of Chaos story arc if you’re up to date with current continuity)!
This isn’t just a tin of sardines, it’s one tin containing an entire ocean’s sardine population along with the next two generations of sardine infants and sardine toddlers (plus any whitebait they keep as pets). The Blocks are the absolute personification of this crammed-in feeling; thousands upon thousands of people stacked within farting distance of each other, hundreds of stories above ground. Additionally, the closeness of the South African heat makes even the outdoor portions feel stuffy and claustrophobic, whilst also helping to bolster the feeling that the earth is still bleeding radiation from a devastating nuclear war.
The setting has been nailed, but the interior of Peach Trees Block, within which the story is set, will almost certainly draw comparisons with the concrete monster in 2011’s The Raid. It cannot be denied that both this film and The Raid share a huge number of similarities, particularly where plot is concerned. Although Mega-City One’s Judges are far more than just police, with an almost religious devotion to the law that is closer to the zealotry of a caste of Shaolin warrior monks than it is to a local constabulary, our story, like The Raid, essentially involves a cops vs drug lord battle to the top of a tower block.
Where The Raid fell short on compelling characters, however, Dredd shines. Lena Headey, most recognisable as the venomous Cersei Lannister from Game Of Thrones (or Mrs Leonidas in 300 and Sarah Connor from the doomed Terminator TV series), plays crazy scar-faced harlequin Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal, a hooker who munched her boss’s sausage off and stole his tower too. She’s a disfigured bitch with a ruthless tendency to violence, and I don’t care what you say, you totally would. Her opening scene sees her coldly ordering three men to be skinned alive “to set an example”. Thankfully avoiding the usual clichéd villain pitfalls of maniacal evil laughter and evil-for-the-sake-of-evil acts, every decision she makes is psychopathic and emotionless and designed only to serve her lust for power.
Also on the supporting cast is Olivia Thirlby as psychic Judge Anderson. Whilst not really given the opportunity to deliver a knockout performance, Anderson’s character is essential enough to the story and in providing a human link for the audience that she feels like a worthy addition. In the comics, Anderson is a member of Psi Division, a fully-fledged department within the Judge order, and even runs her own series separate from Dredd. Here, she is introduced as something more of an anomaly, a mutant with powers that the Chief Judge believes should be harnessed. It’s uncertain as to whether a Psi Division exists in the movie’s universe, or whether this will be explored in sequels to follow.
Anderson is a Judge on her probation here, with the assault on Peach Trees being her baptism of fire. She, along with Ma-Ma, delivers a one-two punch of badass femininity, and is more than just eye-candy, even if she does manage to lose her clothes and unsheathe her baps at one point. Her credibility is marred slightly by a predictable damsel-in-distress moment, but has already more than redeemed herself by this point after a highly entertaining scene in which she uses her powers to climb inside a perp’s head and skullfuck him into pappering his pantaloons.
I can’t rightfully carry on now without mentioning our fascist anti-hero, Judge Dredd himself, played by Kiwi actor, Karl Urban, who is probably most recognisable from his supporting roles as Eomer in Lord of Rings, “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek, and that evil Emo dressed up as the insect offspring of Jedward in Chronicles Of Riddick. The question we’ve all been asking is, “Does his chin do the job?” Well, it’s not quite as inhumanly long as Dredd’s from the comics, or as chunky as fan favourite choice Ron Perlman, or as stony as Clint Eastwood’s, or as non-existent as Chin-chan’s, but Urban’s chin definitely does the job. Comparing his dark and cruel take on Dredd to Stallone’s almost illegible mumbling, hands-on-hips posturing and technicolor Tomy toy costume is about as pointless as trying to fire up a conversation with a joint of ham. Thankfully, bitter memories of 1995’s by-the-numbers action flick have all but faded away.
Urban’s Dredd is as economical with words as the movie is with its budget, speaking only when necessary and cutting straight to the point. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an opportunity for the occasional one-liner before a gory finisher (more about that shortly), but humour is dark and sparsely scattered. Perhaps the lingering smell from Rob Schneider’s “comedy” sidekick diarrhoea-fest was just too intense to risk another faceplant of facetiousness.
Dredd’s signature shiny uniform has seen somewhat of a redesign, which hasn’t bothered me even remotely as much as I thought it would. It now looks more functional and realistic, and far more practical than carrying two gigantic brass ornaments around on the shoulders. Urban is not quite the hulking, veiny mass of muscle that many might have expected cast in the role, but true fans will know that Dredd’s physique can vary wildly depending on the artist drawing him, and his power has always been his ruthless character and utter dogmatic devotion to the word of the law. This is in full play here. Dredd is an anti-hero because he takes literally no moral stance on any action he takes. He does exactly what the Book states he should, whether or not it could be considered morally right or wrong. Never does he question it, nor does he flinch when doling out the punishment.
And there is plenty of that. Morbid curiosity will be indulged over and over again. Whether you’ve always wanted to see a man’s teeth fly out of a gaping hole in his cheek in super slow motion, his throat collapsed with a single punch, or his head cooked from the inside-out, you’ll get to see all of it here, all credible enough to turn the stomach. The term “hyperviolence” is an understatement, and Dredd certainly earns its 18 certificate in the UK (presumably “R” rating in the US and a “FUCKING BANNED” rating in Germany). Interestingly, the comic-book’s make-believe swear-words have been vetoed here, which is probably in the interests of selling a dark future. I can’t imagine people phasing out Fuck for Drokk, Goddamn for Gruddamn and Shit for Stomm any time soon anyway. Porn would certainly be made far more interesting though if girls started saying, “Drokk me in my stommhole, Gruddamnit!”
Dwelling on the violence for a moment, I’d probably cite this as a flaw that will be picked up by some viewers. It really is profuse, and often used for shock effect. For those like me with a movie bloodlust, you’ll slap your knee and laugh whilst wincing every time a perp gets plugged and then walk out of the movie at the end and ask “So what was your favourite kill?” Those with an aversion to over-the-top gruesomeness will probably be put off by the viscera. I will say that the OTT gore is certainly true to the comics, although the best Dredd stories ever written were never quite as showy about it.
I’m surprised I’ve got this far and I’ve yet to mention is the plot-driver itself, a futuristic drug called Slo-Mo. I’m not a drug taker but if I was I’d hit this stuff silly. As the story goes, it’s an inhaled drug that makes time appear to travel at 1% its normal speed. It’s a bit of a masterstroke of an inclusion by Alex Garland because it provides an excuse for some deliciously psychedelic slow motion sequences that are probably the main reason you’ll want to see this film in 3D. I’ve heard complaints about how copiously used this is, but I’d say the opposite. Three or four times it is employed in visually spectacular sequences, and I honestly would have been happy to see more of it. It would also have been interesting to see the practical uses for such a drug, perhaps in gang enforcers with ridiculously quick reflexes, but it appears that everyone who takes it quickly becomes a monged-out space cadet and is capable of little other than rolling their eyes back into their heads and spilling a variety of liquids into the air.
As previously mentioned, story is certainly thin on the ground, and this might also take some negative flak. Aside from obvious similarities to The Raid, I was actually reminded of the storyline from an early 1990s 16-bit videogame. Dredd begins at Level 1 and must fight his way through to Level 200, killing baddies before defeating the Big Boss. Even the ending is abrupt enough, and a “Congratulations! You won! Now try Hard difficulty!” wouldn’t have looked out of place. It is so reminiscent of a 90s videogame, in fact, that I can imagine vividly what almost every scene would look like in a 16-bit tie-in, and it would be awesome. SOMEBODY PLEASE MAKE THIS.
I presume that the compact storyline was intentional to a degree. The film runs at around the 90-minute mark, and certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. It basically feels like a one-shot set in the Dreddverse, neither an origin story nor an epic, perhaps to test the water for a sequel, and is a worthy vessel for a character study of Judge Dredd himself. Although he’s almost impenetrable and emotionless, tiny slithers of humanity crawl through the cracks in his fascist facade. Karl Urban has also expressed an interest in exploring Dredd’s questioning of the system he represents in future films, which WILL happen, by the way. It’s number 1 at the UK box office as I write this and the Yanks fucking love this kind of stuff, so it’ll take off nicely.
It was going to be hard to fail when the bar was set lower than a flasher’s undies last time, but there was a lingering worry in my stomach about a few details in the lead-up to Dredd’s release. Director Pete Travis, for example, who hasn’t really got form for releasing great movies and has a name like that long-haired fellow you know who works the warehouse at work and claims that he used to be in a band. The budget was another concern of mine, considering that most romcoms somehow manage to piss more than DNA raised here. Or even Karl Urban, who was the last person anyone expected to get the job, despite his decent track record.
Well, I’m not worried anymore. Every last penny of the budget was well spent, Pete Travis has a four-star film under his belt, and Karl Urban is Judge Dredd.
Now give us a sequel, or get the hell out.
That doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Marvelites does. I’m not even sure how you’d say that.
This fortnight’s comic is the first of the Pwked comics not to star one of my main cast. Stan Lee is a lovable old chappy whose unbreakable enthusiasm is just remarkable at his age, when he should be complaining about small aches and pains and making racial slurs. So it was only right that I pay homage to the grandmaster of Marvel by showing him flinging the white stuff about just like his very own Spiderman.
I can’t imagine whether he’ll end up in a retirement home before he pops his clogs, but here’s what might be in store for him when he does.
Pwked will return again in two weeks, Sensational Spectators!