The build up to the release of the new Judge Dredd movie has been an interesting one. First came the surprise and excitement that anybody would touch the property after Stallone's disappointing big budget attempt. I'll admit they got certain elements right, such as the portrayal of a Block War in progress along with the scale of Dredd's world, but the good certainly failed to outweigh the bad. Then, as first images appeared on the net, concern over the stripped back style of the uniforms, bikes and Mega-City which suggested too low a budget to deliver the film many fans have been imagining since the early 80s. But hope came with a trailer that demonstrated the film's hook, a drug that allows the action to be slowed down and given a coat of sparkling beauty during scenes of ultraviolence that wouldn't look out of place in an early Paul Verhoeven movie. Then a bizarre turn of events as the set up seemed to mirror that of another film released earlier this year, The Raid also being about cops trapped in a tower block having to fight their way through floors of murderous gangs. Already it seemed we were in for something rather unoriginal and stifled, however, initial reviews were good and there was talk, if this one made money, that a sequel would feature Dredd's ultimate enemies...the Dark Judges.
After a quick voiceover explains where and what Mega-City One is, who makes up its population and the role of the Judges, we hit the streets with Dredd. On his bike he races after a van full of perps who are high on the new drug, Slo-Mo, and in their desperation to evade justice leave some bloody roadkill in their wake. Dredd brutally sentences them, the tone is wonderfully set and I'm happily transported back to 18 cert action movies, if not the comics, of my childhood. Especially Robocop, which also shares the grisly notion that when hot lead connects with human flesh you get clouds of blood and cooked meat. It's at times spectacularly gory, yet the violence manages to feel gritty and real within its dystopian world. Slo-Mo also draws these moments out and presents them on an anatomical level. The physics and ballistics of a shootout become dreamlike, blood appears as gloopy red liquid, flesh is sliced open and explosions of debris hang in the air. The switch between these two styles is the film's most interesting achievement and lends it its own identity. These almost still frames also help evoke the panels of a comic book, though subtly enough not to feel cheesy or out of place.
The story boils down to one day in the life of a tough future cop, partnered with a mind-reading mutant rookie and trapped in a hostile environment. There are some pleasing twists and turns along the way, but overall it's a simple plot that feels more concerned with showing the audience its world and setting the mood than risking overreaching and becoming cluttered with too many ideas or characters. Fans of the comics do get hints at the larger Dredd universe; I spotted some graffiti by Chopper, a Fattie, reference to Punks on a shop sign, etc, but the focus is cleverly kept tightly in on events of that day.
Karl Urban is a great Dredd. Never removing his helmet he conveys the character through his gruff delivery and lots of down-turned mouth and stubbly chin acting. His dialogue is sparse, but when he does deem to speak it's spot on and at times surprisingly amusing. The film's emotional weight is carried by Olivia Thirlby as rookie Judge Anderson, a fresh-faced optimist eager to pass her assessment contrasting well with the hard, cynical, experienced Dredd. Lena Headey puts in a mean turn as Ma-Ma, the villain who runs the block and likes having her enemies thrown off it. Wood Harris felt a little wasted as the prisoner, but brings a little of The Wire along with him which is never a bad thing.
There are some great action set pieces, but beyond the Slo-Mo scenes, they don't feel overly grand or particulary epic. Seeing the film's hero burn a gang to death or stun and execute another as they are rolling around in pain aren't your typical punch the air moments, yet are strangely satisfying. In this sense, Dredd shares some of the fascism of Starship Troopers. He is more a soldier than a cop, in a war on crime where everybody is guilty of something. Seeing Anderson having to make the hard choices and also deal with the repercussions of those choices certainly helps balance the film, and for all Dredd's apparent cold detachment, she can sense that there is something more humane behind it.
Sadly my screening only had a handful of people in it (although it was a roasting day by the seaside), so if that's any indication we won't be getting that Dark Judges sequel, which will be a real shame. Niggles aside (the third act had some problems which I won't go into as they are plot related), a wonderfully grubby future world has been created, and only getting one story from this Mega-City for me just isnt enough.
Nature drunk and High