FEATURE: I Saw Dredd The Other Night and, Y’know, It Was Pretty Good

dredd

I was never that big on 2000 AD as a kid, though I tried my darndest to be, I guess out of some kind of attempted national pride. Maybe I should have read more of the stories wherein Dredd’s fascistic tendencies are directly addressed; for the most part, though, I think I felt a little uncomfortable by this law enforcer who does it by the book, except the book involves long jail sentences for things like pan handling or graffiti, and instant death for robbery and the like. People who say Batman is a right-winger’s wet dream clearly have never come across Dredd.

Of course, I’ve seen the 1995 Sly Stallone Judge Dredd film, and of course, it’s a shit as people say it is. I mean, it’s got Rob Schneider in it, a man whose presence in a film is as welcomed as the presence of a rabid skunk in one’s living room.

Despite all this, the new Dredd caught me hook, line and sinker from the start, with the images of Karl Urban’s chin and promise of a decent script by Alex Garland. According to my friend who works at the Odeon I saw it at, I’m the first patron of the film who isn’t in his forties and principally clad in the merchandise of heavy metal bands.

This current cycle of comic book movies is, I’d argue, vastly superior to the previous wave – the original X-Men and Spider-Man films, and their ilk – because they’re actually telling stories. The first X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil, etc etc, are all pretty boring films to watch (especially on repeat viewings) because they’re just origin stories. They’re pilot episodes. They’re setting up characters and worlds and leaving decent, interesting plots on the backburner. And once they’re into that groove, they tended to stay in them.

What we’ve got now is stuff like The Amazing Spider-Man, which can handle changes in tone, has a romantic sub-plot that’s anything but token, and manages to slot the origin story into a proper, three-act structure; it’s the difference between a voice-over spouting exposition, and the same information appearing naturally throughout a narrative (so like, Blade Runner theatrical vs director’s cut).

Dredd is a cut above other comic book movies because it’s not an adaptation of a storyline from 2000 AD, there’s no pandering to fans, we don’t need the backstory of Judge Joe Dredd: instead, it’s a cross between Assault on Precinct 13 and Training Day. The story you can explain not as “Oh, y’know that comic? It’s that,” but, “A rookie cop gets taken on her first patrol by a grizzled veteran, only to find themselves locked within a gang-occupied high-rise, where they have to fight to survive.”

It’s a brutal film, in terms of the violence and the bleak environment of Mega City-One – an enormous city that takes up one of the coasts of the United States, since the rest has been ravaged by nuclear war – and the politics are not glossed over. The rookie cop in question, Judge Anderson, frequently questions Dredd’s cold, enforce-the-law-at-all-costs approach; although she does give into it (sort of) towards the end. Dredd is never made out to be a hero, just a guy doing his job who doesn’t know any better. The “bad guys”, too, are colourful and genuinely villainous – albeit with some sympathetic qualities.

The central Maguffin of the plot, a drug called Slo-Mo (which pretty much does as it says, it makes time appear to slow to its user), works both as a pretty stunning visual tool and as a plot device. Dredd’s unwavering approach to the law is shown as brutal and un-humanistic as it is effective. The hours Karl Urban, who plays Dredd, spent in front of the mirror keeping a steady jaw and pissed-off expression clearly paid off. Olivia Thirlby shows new dimensions to her acting, and is only ever a damsel in distress because of her rookie status, not her gender, and is also the one to free herself, not waiting on a big strong man to come along.

The world is as horrible and gritty as it needs to be. There’s enough humour to make it not totally depressing. There’s a song from cult sketch show Snuff Boxsung by Matt Berry in it, which is pretty weird. And I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared by a film’s “protagonist” before.

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