Dredd is the best movie I’ve seen this year. It’s better than The Dark Knight Rises. It’s even better than The Avengers. It’s the best movie I’ve seen since The Immortals*. It is seriously good.
Judge Dredd’s domain is post-apocalyptic America, but most of the action in this movie happens in a kilometre-high city block called Peach Trees, which is ruled by evil drug lord Ma-Ma and her sidekick Avon Barksdale.
This is no shiny, chrome-and-white futuristic civilisation … it’s a dirtier, scarier version of our world. Which it kind of is, being inner-city Joburg with added CGI tower blocks. See:
You might have to go ahead and click on that gif to make it work properly.
Dredd is taking Judge Anderson on a sort of training day; she failed the test to get into the force, but she’s a bit of a psychic, so she’s getting a last chance.
The rookie judge got her powers from a genetic mutation and there are a few tantalising hints at anti-mutant prejudice, mostly minor character making snide remarks, but these don’t build up to anything, which is a bit disappointing. I was hoping Ma-Ma would turn out to have been hiding a giant mutant monster hiding at the top of Peach Trees.
There are a few things put into the film to please the fans of the comics (forums are abuzz with talk of ‘fatties’ …) but most of the time it’s done subtly enough that it doesn’t annoy the average audience member, or clever enough that it gestures intriguingly towards a more complex backstory.
For example, there are subtle suggestions that Dredd might be psychic as well. When the two judges are in the lift with their prisoner, Avon Barksdale, they have this exchange:
Anderson: Sir, he’s thinking of making a move for your weapon.
Anderson: He’s changed his mind.
Is this Dredd’s hard-worn, jaded cop instincts kicking in? Or is it something else? Right at the end of the movie, when Dredd is about to be killed, he stalls the conversation with his prospective murderer for a few seconds, just long enough for Anderson to arrive to save him. But … how did he know she was on her way?!? I was hoping this would all be cleared up in the sequel, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. More on that later.
Ma-Ma and her crew are involved in trafficking Slo-mo, a drug that slows down a user’s perception of time to one percent of its normal speed, and it’s that which makes the violence in the movie tolerable. Dredd is probably one of the most violent films I’ve seen, but it comes in short bursts, so it doesn’t wear you down; you get the shock without the desensitisation. A little bit like the head-stomping scene in Drive.
Also, the most brutal scenes in Dredd happen in Slo-mo time, making them rather more beautiful and scientifically interesting than horrifying. The drug takes away the gratuity too, as the shoot-outs and fights pan out exactly how users of Slo-mo are experiencing them; it’s not just to look cool.
In his novel Corpsing, Toby Litt spends pages and pages describing bullets making their way through bodies, in forensic detail, and the Slo-mo shoot-out scenes in Dredd are similar in creating a hyperreal, other-wordly detachment from the violence, that is more jarring than the violence itself.
Weirdly enough, the effect is both more violent, in that the violence is drawn out and lingered upon, and less violent, in that there’s a yawning distance between you and it.
The final death scene in Dredd is the piece de resistance; in the time it takes to happen, which feels like ages, you’re going ‘oh no they wouldn’t‘ … and then they do. Delightfully gruesome.
Interestingly, Dredd passes the Bechdel test, not that it really matters. What matters is that the female characters in the movie, mainly Ma-Ma, Anderson, and another female judge, are really no different from the men. They are interesting, solid characters that just happen to be women.
Despite Ma-Ma’s history – her rise to the top of the criminal underworld was preceded by a stint as a prostitute, which culminated in her biting of the dick of the man who knifed her in the face – she’s almost a genderless character, and even a scene of her in the bath on Slo-mo is oddly asexual. It’s not that she’s not attractive, it’s just that her looks are not the most interesting part of her. She’s colder and more violent than everyone else around her, traits that dominate over her physical appearance.
Anderson bears the weight of character development in the film, seeing as Dredd himself is basically an imoveable object, and her story arc does sort of follow the naïve-waif-coming-of-age-in-first-big-character-test. Dredd is difficult to get to know because of his helmet (which he never takes off … apparently that’s important to the fans) while Anderson doesn’t wear one – not because of her pretty blonde hair, but because it interferes with her psychic ability.
However feminine and approachable Anderson may seem to an audience desperate for a human connection, she can be as ruthless and violent as anyone else. She has a great psychological mindfuck of a scene with Avon Barksdale, exhibits a mean roundhouse kick, and later in the film puts emotion aside and pulls the trigger when she has to.
Maybe the best part about Dredd, as a comic book movie, is that it wasn’t another freaking origin story. As much as I loved the new Spider-Man, did it really have to follow the same plot as Tobey Maguire’s 2002 edition? Iron Man, Captain America, both Hulks, X-men, Fantastic Four, Greens Hornet and Lantern, and now the new Superman is doing the same thing. None of these films had the confidence in their source material to throw the audience straight into a story; we had to suffer through either half an hour or a whole film of exposition.
I’ve never read the Judge Dredd comics, and I missed the Stallone incarnation, but about three seconds into Dredd I was all caught up. It’s really fine, Hollywood scriptwriters – we can cope with a little thinking.
Of course, you could argue that this is an Anderson origin story, but that’s fine. What’s important is that we didn’t have to waste an hour on introductions and small talk.
Alex Garland, who wrote the novel The Beach and screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which are both solid films that more or less bombed, wrote the screenplay for Dredd, with a lot of input from John Wagner, co-creator of the character. It’s actually independently produced by British production company DNA Films, and was picked up for distribution in America by Lionsgate.
Unfortunately, despite it being a tight, dark, witty film, everybody thought Dredd was going to be bad– mainly because the marketing was terrible – so hardly anybody watched it. Garland said they’d make a sequel if Dredd made budget, which didn’t even come close to happening, so that looks unlikely.
Dredd is a lowly 108th on the list of top earners in 2012, behind a travesty of imitations like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Step Up Revolution, Paranormal Activity 4, Total Recall and Men In Black 3.
Overall it made $23.5-million, just over half of its budget of $45-million. To put that in perspective, The Avengers made $623-million. The Dark Knight Rises made $447-million. The original Judge Dredd, with Sylvester Stallone, made $34.6-million – in 1995. It’s judgement time, planet earth.
*Not a joke.