Dredd

Pete Travis, 2012

In the past few years, we’ve seen a conscious push from certain filmmakers towards a return to the roots of low-fuss, high-concept action, widescreen love letters to the early work of George Miller and John Carpenter. While efforts like Mather & St. Leger’s Lockout and Neil Marshall’s Doomsday had their hearts in the right place, the resulting films were a mixed bag to put it mildly, filmic equivalents of spirited bar band covers of much-loved standards. Good enough to get us old groupies going, but not the kind of thing that’s ever going to win over wide-eyed newcomers wondering what all the fuss was about.

Dredd is the real deal.

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I am the subtext.

For those not yet in the know, Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s reboot bears no relation whatsoever to the 1995 Stallone vehicle, which took the iconic 2000AD character as little more than a springboard from which to launch itself into typical Hollywood action movie antics after the first twenty minutes. This fresh take proves much more focused, with an obvious love for the material that shines through in everything from the incidental background graffiti to keeping our stoic lawman firmly masked for the duration. If anything it skews a little darker, with drokks replaced by fucks and shocking scenes of violence that all but freeze themselves to the screen.

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Level the scenery. Last thing we need is Armand Assante turning up again.

Our story takes place in Mega-City One, a massive urban sprawl rife with poverty and gang violence, where the brutal, fascistic police force known as Judges struggle to maintain order in the ceaseless chaos. The film follows one of these Judges (Karl Urban, Lord of the RingsThe Bourne Supremacy) through a day on the job, as Dredd attempts to put rookie candidate and budding psychic Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, Juno) though her paces.

It isn’t long before they’re deep into a murder case involving the latest designer street drug Slo-Mo, leading them to a gang who’ve systematically taken over the entire tower block at Peach Trees, headed by the notoriously vicious, self-made ex-prostitute known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, Game of Thrones300). Following a successful bust that could prove fatal to her operation, she puts the block on lockdown, trapping the Judges and doing everything in her considerable power to ensure they don’t make it back out alive.

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A terrifying instrument of destruction, seen here with her Big Gun.

Urban gives an arresting, committed performance as Dredd, no small feat for a part that keeps most of the actor’s features buried beneath a helmet. Where lesser actors would have cribbed straight from Bruce and Rorschach’s Big Bleak Book of Gruff and Growly Badassery, Urban’s Dredd speaks in almost a whisper, echoing Clint Eastwood’s inspiration on the original character, a subtle touch that proves a perfect fit. Thirlby offers able assistance as fan-favourite Anderson, offering the audience the emotional hook to invest themselves in such a vicious, nihilistic world as her impassioned idealist bends, but never breaks to her circumstances.

Such roles can be a thankless task, but here Thirlby makes it her own, never succumbing to the Scrappy Pile as she casts Anderson as a strong, independent character more than able to hold her own. Pitted against them, Lena Headey offers typically impressive work as the ruthless survivor Ma-Ma, who alongside Charlie Theron’s wicked witch Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman proved 2012 to be a banner year for memorable female villains.

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Nice scene you got there. Now hand it over.

What impresses most about Dredd is how much it does with how little it has. Where films like Prometheus piss away hours hinting at depth while handwaving any attempt at actually providing it, this offers a layered, engaging experience within the confines of a brisk 95 minutes.

Far from the fascist circle-jerk some critics have labelled it as, the world our Judges find themselves in is a more troubled, complex one. The Judges are the product of a failing system, only able to respond to a tiny fraction of active crimes, the criminals themselves portrayed as doomed, struggling souls with little other alternative. Even when successful, the Judges’ actions make little real difference in the world at large, with an endless tide of criminals to take the place of the few they manage to take down.

As they cut their path through this situation, our protagonists learn and adapt over the course of the story, questioning themselves and eventually changing (even if only subtly) to better meet their circumstances while never compromising the consistency of their beliefs. While that might not sound like much, that level of attention to detail and good, solid writing is vanishingly rare in most mainstream action movies these days.

All that’s for nothing if the film doesn’t deliver in the action stakes, of course. The set-up has drawn comparison with Gareth Evans’ The Raid, but beyond the basic premise there’s very little room for comparison, both films able to stand apart as excellent, distinctive offerings in their own right. While this doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of relentless action Evans’ film does, I doubt you’ll be disappointed, with plenty of intense, rapid firefights punctuated by some memorable, horrific scenes used sparingly to great effect with time slowed to a near-standstill, simulating the effects of the Ma-Ma clan’s drug of choice.

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Hey look! It’s those guys who actually went to see our movie! Both of ‘em!

What gripes there are rest squarely on the limitations of an extremely modest budget, with incidental elements outside of Peach Trees a little too recognisable as their real-life South African locations, along with a fairly weak attempt at the Judges’ trademark Lawmaster bikes. That seems of little import, though, when the rest of the film stands so strong, such elements glimpsed only briefly before the film firmly puts its focus on the tower block and truly kicks into gear.

Dredd proved to be a disaster at the box office, taking only a fraction of its budget, a situation no doubt helped along by limited screenings, terrible marketing and the questionable legacy left by a predecessor that may as well have been the product of another planet. Things are starting to look up though, finally. With Blu-Ray and DVD sales starting strong, there’s a ghost of a chance we may yet get to see that sequel after all. The possibilities of what this team could do with a heftier budget make me a little giddy just thinking about it, but whatever happens, we’ll still be left with the best sci-fi action movie in a very long time.

 

star5

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