Dredd movie review
Review I haven't seen The Raid, the skirmish-in-a-skyscraper flick so many Dredd reviewers have compared with this latest attempt to bring 2000AD's favourite anti-hero to the big screen. But I have been reading the comic on and off since 1977 - more on than off; it went a bit crap in the 1990s - and Judge Dredd remains a weekly joy, especially when penned by co-creator John Wagner.
And I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle. Like it or loathe it, you can't argue that the move got the punked-up visual style of the comic, defined primarily by co-creator Carlos Ezquerra and fellow artist Mike McMahon, off pat.
I am the law
Dredd presents an altogether bleaker, more grimy view, a 2012 take on the future rather than one from 1980. With its widely spaced cityblocks, low-rise areas threaded with multi-lane motorways, dawn mist and harsh sunlight, Dredd's Mega City One look more like a developing world metropolis than the hi-tech New York version from 2000AD.
Out goes the spikey hair, safety pins and kneepads, and in come hoodies and puffer jackets, sweaty singlets, gold chains and tracksuits. It's kids who can't pull their pants up properly who scare adults today, not the punk rockers of the 1970s, and Dredd draws a bead accordingly.
It's the future and it's urban, innit?
Dredd's Mega-City One is more low-rise than high
To me it looks wrong, too far from the source material, too close to the now. The cits here could be inserted without change into any movie set in late 20th Century LA - Latin America or Los Angeles, take your pick. The decor is low-tech. The concrete bare or shit-stained. It doesn't feel futuristic at all. The action's setting, a megastructure called Peach Trees - it should have been Howard Marx Block - is more housing estate than the house of tomorrow.
But it's perhaps a fair call on the part of the film's makers. Dredd's dystopia is less culturally centred than the one depicted in 2000AD, the better to appeal to audiences across the globe, many of whom will live in places not so very different to this. And the truth is, we've seen the 2000AD Mega-City One too often in movies since, from Blade Runner onwards. Neon washed, rain splashed cityscapes have been done to death.
Likewise, as a fan, I don't like Dredd's pared back uniform, a dust-covered black glorified flack jacket that, yes, might be more practical than a full Eagle and pads, but simply isn't iconic in the way the comic's uniform is. And with all the judges as grubby as the cits, it's hard to accept this is an elite force.
Perpspotting: punks out, hoodies in. Innit
At least Karl Urban never takes his helmet off - there's an in-shadow, back of the head shot early on - the crew were wise enough to understand that, like Batman's cowl and Spider-man's mask, Dredd's helmet is his face.
A colleague enthusiastically told me Dredd will take me right back to the 1970s, with the kind of punchy, violent stories they told back then. And they were only five pages long, too. At just shy of two hours, Dredd isn't long either, its welcome is not overstayed and then some the way last two Dark Knight movies were. Director Pete Travis keeps it nicely tight.
The plot, such as it is - cops isolated and hunted down; High Noon in a high-rise - is straightforward, providing a justification for the action and little else. There are plenty of things fans will regonise - 'Muties out' and Chopper graffiti; Lawgivers with multiple ammo types, and which explode, devastatingly, when used by a civilian - but the backstory is kept to the back. Viewers new to Dredd's world will get the gist without any who, what or why interrupting the action.
The boys and girls in blue, kind of
Which is handled by Travis with appropriate intensity, though none of the black humour that informs most comic book violence, Judge Dredd's in particular. This is one bloody movie, its 18 certificate justified. It's sure to be cut for domestic viewing.
'But Dredd is a Judge. And Judges are not ordinary men'
Dredd himself, of course, makes a terse statement or too, but there are none of the pithy one-liners that would become the mainstay of action hero dialogue in the 1980s. Or of the short, sharp declarations of intent that established Dredd in the early strips as the personification of the law not merely a man with a gun killing to uphold it. Even his 'I am the law' catchphrase is played down.
That perhaps is the one real flaw here. In attempting to avoid the comedy - intentional and unintentional - of the previous film and, yes, of the strip too, writer Alex Garland has taken something away from the source's personality. And of the character's too. In the first half of the film especially, there's a sense that, but for the helmet, this could be any tough cop or commando yomping through the concrete corridors, gun in hand.
Not a mopad or ten-wheel truck to be seen
Urban makes a bold stab at the Judge, but Garland gives him so little to go on. He has the sneer right, and the raspy, Eastwood-esque voice so many fans read into the strip, but script and direction fail to give Dredd the presence he has in the strip. 2000AD's Dredd may be nicknamed 'Old Stoney Face' by his fellow Judges, but he's no blank monolith. He is here. It's a testament to Urban that he manages to invest the character with any personality at all.
But the action and momentum pick up in the second half, after a stunning set-piece in which Lena Headey's Ma-Ma - a slightly spaced, more visceral version of her Game of Thrones Queen Bitch of the Universe persona - machine guns the shit out an entire level of Peach Trees, and the first and only time we see some BFGs of the kind that might appear in the strip. Dredd gets to operate on his own - which is when he's always best - and can use smarts as well as brawn and marksmanship to mete out judgement.
The last part of the movie begins to feel like a real Judge Dredd story, with the character taking centre stage, more judges getting involved and sidekick rookie Judge Anderson getting to flex her abilities and skills too, and do a little more than trail after Dredd. Only the anticlimactic ending lets it down.
The chin's the thing
This is no glossy megabudget blockbuster of the kind Marvel is churning out these days, but a taut, low-budget, dark, urban thriller. It sure as heck isn't SF, the drug McGuffin - called Slo-Mo, a time-dilating narcotic that makes for some very cute cinematography, courtesy of Anthony Dod Mantle - notwithstanding. Viewers expecting bright lights and spacecraft will be disappointed.
Dod Mantle does well with the 3D tech too, though it never rises above gimmick status. I'd trade the showers of lights, blood and glass splinters for a more colourful and brighter image any day. You won't miss out waiting for the 2D version.
I'm a Judge Dredd fan, and this isn't a fan's movie. For me, that's not good, but for the movie, it's the right way to go. It bravely - in part out of budget necessity - avoids that old sci-fi clichés, the dystopia, and plays down the hi-tech too. The result is a realist hyper-violent thriller intended to be accessible to a broader audience than SF buffs and fortysomethings who've been reading 2000AD since they were kids. It's the most un-comic strip comic strip adaptation that has ever been made. It's just a shame that, in the process, it has taken much of the personality out of its titular hero. ®