I think Dredd was a surprise for most people who watched it. Judging from the trailers I think everyone, myself included, was expecting a putrid radioactive turd on the level of X-Men 3 or, God help us, Ghost Rider. But imagine our surprise when this thing actually turned out to be really damn good. I suppose I could take it as a hint to stop judging a movie based on the trailers and not flying into self-righteous nerd rants before seeing the film but then again…..nope, sorry, not doing that. But I will write at length about how Dredd is actually a pretty badass piece of filmmaking.
So for those of you who’ve never heard of him, Judge Dredd originally appeared in the pages of seminal British anthology comic 2000 AD as a satirical takedown of both Thatcher-era hardline politics and the “tough cop” genre that was popularized with Dirty Harry. In the post-near-apocalypse dystopia of Mega-City 1, law enforcement is carried out by the Judges (including the title character Judge Dredd), men and occasionally women who ride around in colorful uniforms meting out extreme justice against law breakers, which usually means shooting them in the messiest way possible.
Dredd doesn’t have the best history when it comes to film, despite all the potential there is for gruesome ultra violence and social satire. The only other film to hit screens is a 1995 effort starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, which broke the cardinal rules of having Dredd take his helmet off and involving Rob Schneider in any way. So really all the new one had to do was not do that, and be generally more enjoyable that having your tongue scraped over a rusty cheese grater.
Dredd sees a more conservatively dressed Dredd and Trainee Judge Anderson trapped in side Peach Trees, a high rise apartment building controlled by one of the city’s preeminent drug lords, the sole manufacturer of Slo-Mo, a drug that causes the user’s perception of time to slow down. Now Dredd and Anderson must fight their way past legions of goons, and if you’re thinking this all sounds a lot like The Raid, you’re not the only one.
First let’s talk about Dredd himself, here portrayed by Karl Urban doing his demo tape for the next Batman movie. As the filmmakers were quick to point out early on to placate die-hard fans, Dredd never takes off his signature helmet for the entire length of the movie. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but what you’ll notice as you watch the film is that while he never takes his helmet off literally, he never takes it off figuratively either.
Comic book movies, and most comic books these days for that matter, are pretty big on stressing the human element. These days it seems we want our superheroes (and Dredd is really a superhero for all intents and purposes) to be human. They have faults, foibles, tragic back stories, they get emotional. Which is why it’s so interesting that the makers of Dredd looked at that trend and went “Let’s just…not”.
I’ll be buggered if there was a single moment in that movie where Dredd acts even remotely human. He never expresses any emotion beyond grim stoicism, he never talks about himself or his motivations or backstory, and God damn if I don’t admire that about the movie. The writers could so easily have looked at the way comic book movies, and again most comic books in general, are done these days and tried to “update” the character for modern times by making him miss his puppy or have a good cry once in a while. But rather than do that they said “No” and wrote a character about as human as a lump of very scowly cheese with a love of gruesome murder and authoritarianism.
Now yeah, it is possible it’s just bad writing, but I prefer my version where the writers are brave trend-setters going against the norm rather than a pack of monkeys with laptops.
Then there’s the fact that the movie shows a considerable amount of restraint where it needs to. The whole thing more or less takes place within a succession of grungy rooms and hallways, and those expecting a big, over the top action set-piece finale will probably have to go back to watching Michael Bay movies and being dumb. The movie sets its sights low in terms of fantastic locations or scenes so that it can focus more energy on what it can do, that being ultraviolence and the few slo-mo scenes.
I was initially cynical about this whole gimmick (and it is a gimmick, no mistake) but the filmmakers again made the right call by a) filming these scenes with actual high-speed cameras rather than just slowing down regular footage and b) only maybe doing it three or four times, when they actually had something interesting to do with it. Again, that’s what I call restraint.
Finally, while the movie does try to have its cake and eat it to, it does at least flirt with the whole satire thing. Most of the time the violence seems to be played for straight catharsis, but once in a while you see something that seems less “Hell yah!” and more “Well…that’s kinda unsettling”. Mere minutes after uttering the iconic “I am the law” line that Stallone so deftly set up for the internet to mock ten years later, Dredd just straight up lights a buncha dudes on fire. And just stands there…watching. It isn’t full on Paul Verhoeven “you are terrible for enjoying this” satire material but the movie does portray Dredd’s methods as more morally questionable than I would have expected.
Dredd is probably up there with the best “pleasant surprise” movies of 2012. It probably won’t go down in history but it’s a fine addition to the scant group of really decent hard-R comic book movies along with Blade and The Crow. Just one more and they’ll have someone to play a no-doubt incredibly violent round of Hungry Hungry Hippos with.