Thank god for Alex Garland, not only does his version of Judge Dredd keep his helmet on to a religious degree but he also turns out definitely not to be Sylvester Stallone. Starting firmly from a winning position then, Dredd continues to score points by avoiding an origin story, not even hinting at any possible love interests and refusing to signpost a sequel (box office figures in America have made that decision retrospectively wise). Dredd IS a comic movie, just not as Marvel have recently been leading us to believe. No in-jokes (as far as EBFS could tell…) or Samuel L. Jacksons doesn’t hurt either. That Dredd turns out to be elegantly structured, economically plotted and as hard nosed, taciturn and violent as it should be practically feels like a bonus to be honest.
Garland has made a habit of getting to the fucking point in his scripts, not letting them get bogged down in unnecessary backstory or exposition or even the laws of physics (Sunbomb? haha). He seems to have an inbuilt desire to push and pummel his stories forward. He gives his protagonists definite goals that are as economical and simple as The Bicycle Thieves’ “Find my bike!” plot (the benchmark for economy around here). Think of 28 Day’s journey to Manchester or Sunshine’s headlong flight to the sun and Garland’s suitability for the very single minded, black and white world of Mega City One becomes clear.
In ten minutes we see Mega City One, a pleasingly grimy version of Johannesburg adjusted by subtle CGI, meet Judge Dredd, see his methods, meet his charge for the day, a rookie, female Judge who happens to be psychic, and follow them to Peach Trees, a city block under the thrall of the Ma-Ma gang, who are manufacturing a new drug called slo-mo, to investigate three very dead, very flayed bodies that have been slung off the roof. See? Economical. Ten minutes later, Dredd and psychic Judge Anderson are locked in the immense structure, escorting the probable criminal responsible for the flayings and seeing their only escape route is to get to the top of the building to confront the leader of the Ma-Ma’s, a psychotic ex-prostitute with a penchant for biting down during oral sex. That leaves one hour and fifteen minutes for grunted dialogue, gritted teeth and heart worn proudly on it’s bloody, torn, bullet ridden sleeve.
A helmeted Judge Dredd might be a worse role than Batman or Superman but Karl Urban growls through his lines, clenches his jaw in pain and generally doesn’t give in to the apathy of having seventy percent of your face covered. Thankfully Olivia Thirlby’s Judge Anderson utilises a plot contrivance to remain helmet free, saving us from having two unreadable protagonists. More interestingly, certainly more colourfully, Lena Heady plays Ma-Ma, the gang leader with languid gusto, smiling as she kills and clearly enjoying the power she has over her foot soldiers. Pete Travis’ direction is nicely underplayed and makes full use of the slow motion effect that Garland has gifted him via his slo-mo drug creation which is either a neat gimmick or a clunky contrivance. Either way it works. Bullets slide into bodies gracefully, blood splatters and drips, the air glitters and shimmers as everything possible is shown really, really, really slowly. Really slowly.
Dredd doesn’t throw up anything particularly new or leave us pondering any important questions, although Dredd’s resolute adherance to justice, refusing to judge and execute his captive as the chance of him being guilty is only ninety nine percent, costs a lot of innocent, and not innocent people, their lives as they bludgeon their way to the top of the tower. Which is worth thinking about, albeit briefly.There is also a nasty threat of sexual violence to Judge Anderson that lingers unpleasantly and effectively, keeping the tension and the stakes gratifyingly high. Dredd‘s charm and beauty lies in it’s single handed grip on it’s own plot, the world it is set in and ultimately to the very oblique nature of Judge Dredd himself. Excellent.
Didn’t even mention The Raid once, thank you very much……