Ahhh, the Seventies and Eighties: when a new generation of cynical fan-boys thumbed their collective noses at corny paladins like Superman and embraced a host of bad-ass protagonists. Between Han Solo in Star Wars, Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, V in V for Vendetta, Rorschach from Watchmen, Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, Wolverine from the X-Men, Max Rockatansky in Mad Max, John Rambo in First Blood, and Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry not a single solitary fuck was given amongst all of these chaotically-good renegades.
Judge Dredd definitely deserves to be included with this company of violent, laconic assholes. Director Danny Cannon and writers William Wisher and Steven DeSousa tried to drag him kicking and screaming into the zeitgeist of pop-culture back in 1995 with the Stallone film of the same name but we all know how well that worked out.
Well, a modicum of justice has finally been given to this iconic but somewhat cultish character thanks to talented British T.V. director Pete Travis and novelist / 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland. The results are a smart, well-paced action film that still manages to remain faithful to the spirit of the original character.
Rife with nuclear war phobia and rampant crime and drug paranoia the mise-en-scène featured in Dredd is definitely a product of the Eighties. The United States depicted in the film is nothing but an irradiated wasteland dominated by massive megacities that stretch from Boston to Washington, DC. Eight-hundred million people live within the confines of this urban hell, trying to eke out a pitiful existence while marinating in an environment awash in random violence, deadly drugs and abject poverty.
With seventeen thousand serious crimes being reported every day, the only line of defense against this incessant tide of chaos is the Hall of Justice and their one-man legal institutions: the Judges. One of their more stalwart representatives, Dredd (Karl Urban) gets a new partner in the form of rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant psychic with the indispensable but tricky ability to tap into the icky thoughts of criminal scumbags.
The two are dispatched to the scene of a gruesome triple homicide at the ironically-named Peach Tree, a massive two-hundred story tenement. A cursory investigation reveals that the three were taken out by a powerful and ruthless gangster *slash* drug kingpin name Madeline Madrigal a.k.a. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). In order to set an example for her rivals she had them skinned alive and then hucked them off the top floor of the Peach Tree. Yikes.
After Dredd and Anderson capture one of Ma-Ma's knowledgeable lieutenants named Kay (Wood Harris), she immediately becomes concerned that he'll spill the beans about her home-grown drug operation. Before Dredd and Anderson can escape, Ma-Ma stages an emergency drill, triggers the building's blast doors and seals the two Judges up within the embattled tower block. Unable to escape or call for back-up, Dredd and his partner are forced to fight their way through waves of hostile goons in order get to their assailant.
Right off the bat director Pete Travis and his stunt coordinator Grant Hulley deliver a thrilling chase scene between a van filled with escaped criminals and a motorcycle-riding Dredd. Like the opening pursuit in Robocop, the scene is dynamically shot on location and positively charged with a real sense of peril. Filmed in downtown Johannesburg, the scene has a sun-baked and authentic quality that's both tangible and exotic.
The film's gritty visual appeal is assisted by some stellar production design by Mark Digby. The shops and hovels in Peach Tree evoke shades of Blade Runner and the warrens inhabited by the movie's skeezier elements are appropriately dank, cluttered and filthy. Add in some impressive costume design by Diana Cilliers and Michael O'Connor and the film's world building is complete. The standard-issue Judge uniform and accompanying hardware is pretty durned impressive. Arguably Dredd's "Lawgiver" handgun is Swiss Army Knife of sci-fi weaponry.
The film-makers also get a lot of mileage out of Slo-Mo, the narcotic peddled by Ma-Ma and her minions. When ingested, the drug makes recipients perceive time at one-percent the normal rate. Not only does this give Travis and chief cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle an excuse to render their action scenes in something resembling "Bullet Time", it also creates an incongruously-gorgeous kaleidoscopic riot of color and sparkles. Violence hasn't looked this pretty since John Woo's last Hong Kong film.
Digital effects are used sparingly and blend in quite well with the practical sets and well-choreographed action scenes. The only thing that took me out of the movie were the CGI bullet hits. As someone who was reared on traditional explosive blood quibs, the digital versions still looks tremendously fake to me. On the flip side I was really impressed by the creatively-gruesome mayhem that the special-effects artists inflict upon the actors and extras. At various times in the film, concussive blasts distort and ripple flesh, cheeks are blown into ribbons by stray bullets and abdomens are pureed by gunfire.
Even the more conventional action sequences pop with creative staging and strategic planning. The "vulcan cannon" sequence is enough to cause post-truamatic stress disorder even if the final result looks suspiciously like a digital matte painting. Fire-fights are sweaty, claustrophobic and charged with dynamic motion. The scene in which two rogue Judges try to outflank and kill Dredd is staged with such clarity it feels like a real S.W.A.T. team drill. And when Dredd shatters his opponent's larynx with a well-placed gun-butt to the throat the effect is appropriately wince-inducing.
I also highly applaud the casting choices. Karl Urban deserves a fucking medal and not just because he cares enough about the character to wear a bucket over his head for the entire film. He also manages to convey a wealth of expression just by using the lower half of his face. It's actually fun to watch what on-screen circumstances prompt him to deliver the classic Judge Dredd lemon face.
Speaking of defying convention, the casting of Lena Headey as Ma-Ma is quite inspired. Even though I would love to have gotten a few more scenes with her to flesh out her back-story at we are provided with some insight into her bleak worldview. Yes, I understand why she's ruthless, bitter, violent and angry but I don't know why she's peddling Slo-Mo other than the fact that she is not just a seller she's an addict herself.
Lena's normally-gorgeous visage has been completely defaced here and I really applaud her lack of ego. Decked out with decayed teeth, cracked lips, facial scars and a fright wig of reddish-brown hair, I suspect that the transformative make-up job really gave Headey a lot of impetus for her hard-boiled performance. Hunched, sneering and fueled by pure contempt for the world that damaged her, Headey approaches the role with a fatalistic quality that makes her interesting and surprisingly sympathetic.
Dredd was a pleasant surprise for me. I sat down to watch it with zero expectations and came out the other end feeling quite sated. Even though the satirical edge present in the original comic books has been largely diminished, the film is still smart, visually inventive, dynamic, bravely acted and no less engaging then your average choke-hold.
I really hope that the flick made enough money in the ancillary markets to warrant a sequel because Dredd is definitely a promising start. I'd love to see a follow-up that retains all of the creative mayhem from the first film whilst blasting the viewer with both barrels of biting social commentary.