It looked like 2000 AD’s toughest lawman would never see the big screen again. A string of flop films based on ‘mature content’ comics and a much maligned previous adaptation in 1995 had seemingly put paid to that.
But here it is. It’s uncompromised, it’s adrenalised, and there’s no Stallone in sight. It’s also one of the most visually revolutionary action films of recent years. Establishing the lore of this dystopian future and setting up the grand scale of Mega-City One, before confining the bulk of the action to one location, is a remarkably effective way of allowing for characterisation of Judge Dredd himself.
For the Dredd of Alex Garland and Pete Travis’ vision is not quite the indestructible, gung-ho portrayal that’s attached itself to the character in the past. Karl Urban’s Dredd expresses caution, restraint and faith in other characters. While not shying away from all the action hero stuff you’re watching for, he’s more rounded than could reasonably be expected.
His interaction with rookie Judge Anderson is a sheer joy to behold. The entire treatment of the Anderson character is fascinating. Not only is her character nuanced and well written but they way the filmmakers have handled her powers is impressive. The portrayal of her psychic powers is immaculately realised in a way that makes X-Men’s similar approach look frankly silly.
Anderson is one of two genre-defying well rounded female characters. Lena Headey as the film’s villain, Ma-Ma makes an invigorating change in that her sex is almost incidental. It’s never dwelled upon or used to affect her actions. She’s brutally cold but softly spoken and with a calm demeanour and that’s what makes her scary. A scene recounting her back-story could have been a hackneyed piece of exposition but it’s told with such a visual flair that it never feel like it is.
There’s a grounded feeling to the way that Mega-City One has been developed here. From shot to shot it looks real world (a result of its South African shoot and budget) but in landscape shots it’s fascinatingly structured; relatively ground level slums studded with vertical cities in the form of the blocks. Budget limitations do show elsewhere, not least in Dredd’s Lawmaster bike that looks like a fibreglass bug shield tacked onto the front of someone’s Yamaha.
Where the film really succeeds is in its usage of slow motion. By making slo-mo imagery a side effect of the narcotic of the same name, it becomes not just a stylistic effect but a diegetic device. It thickly coats the imagery in a translucent sheen that’s translates beautifully to the screen. While slow motion isn’t new in action films it has rarely looked as good, or made as much sense, as it does here.
Comparisons with The Raid are inevitable due to the tower block setting and similar plot beats but there’s much more at stake here. While The Raid tied itself up with manufactured twists, Dredd is more concerned with using the location and device of secluding the heroes as a means of world building.
There’s a minor problem in the disposability of many of the villains but that’s cleverly explained away by a lean plot mechanism: they’re not henchmen, they’re ordinarily people cajoled into action. It adds an extra layer and is effectively explored in a scene involving Anderson and a mother whose husband has adopted a role as bounty hunter.
At 95 minutes, it never leaves time to get stale. The block is so well realised as a location that it seems like they could have afforded further time to investigate it. The dark humour of the comics makes an appearance (not least in some spectacularly gruesome deaths) but never feels the need to offer a comedy sidekick to liven things up. With the world now established on screen, seeing other corners of Mega-City One’s sprawling metropolis explored could be an intriguing prospect. As a neo-fascist satire on a grand scale, it’s a fascinating and heady mix.