Dredd (2012)

dreddbluNote I’ve dropped that insane ‘3D’ from the films title that backfired so badly on the film’s theatrical release last September. As I’m someone who read the Judge Dredd strips in 2000 AD back when it all started in 1977, who bought the American reprints and various graphic novels, who even bought a Judge Dredd baseball cap back in the day, I guess I would be considered a dead-cert punter for the movies cinema release, right? Well, if they couldn’t even get me in through the box-office door what chance did they have? Okay, I may be a minority with my apathy for 3D (though the films utter failure makes my minority suspect), but really, the 3D-centric marketing and distribution evidently did it no favours at all.  So here we are several months later with the film’s Blu-ray and DVD release, and we are still stuck with the 3D nonsense, but at least we get a better choice regards seeing the film in 2D.

But the shadow hanging over this release is the shockingly poor box-office returns that this ambitious and, as it turns out, very good movie suffered last year which seem to have nixed any possibility of the mooted trilogy of films panning out. What should have been the first in a trilogy of ever more ambitious movies is just yet another frustrating  ‘what-if’ viewing experience like Michael J Bassett’s Solomon Kane film was a few years ago.  You can sense that a second, bigger and better film should follow it- that this film is sort of ‘proof of concept’ project, a tentative step into the larger world of Judge Dredd. But that second film won’t ever come.  And I’d contend its not the films fault.

Dredd, as the title would infer, is set in a dystopian future, in a  huge crime-ridden metropolis called Mega City One that is surrounded by irradiated apocalyptic wasteland.  Budgetary restrictions limit the films depiction of the city compared to the huge futuristic sci-fi world of the comic, but this actually helps the film regards cementing its sense of reality. I rather think  Dredd‘s Mega City One is an embryonic, formative version of that of the comic. It is pretty much a fascist police state, in which Judges patrol the anarchistic streets on machine-gun equipped bikes. These Judges are cop, jury and executioner, dispensing instant and brutal justice in an attempt to prevent society collapsing into bloody chaos.  In the comic the setting is used as an exaggerated allegory of our own world, with much darkness and twisted humour, and nuances impossible to digest into a 90+ minute movie.

Dredd has a simple plot, in which Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is tasked with  assessing psychic rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) whilst on patrol. Drug lord and  gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) is manufacturing and dispensing a virulent new drug called Slo-Mo which, when smoked, heightens its users sense of time. Ma-Ma maintains her lordship of Mega Block Peach Tree Towers as brutally as the Judges in the city beyond, literally skinning alive three of her competitors, but she comes under the attention of Judge Dredd when the bodies of said competitors are reported. Dredd takes  Anderson into the Peach Trees Megablock on a drugs bust. In order to stop Dredd and Anderson taking one of her right-hand men back to the Halls of Justice, Ma-Ma closes down her Megablock, shutting the Judges off from the city and any assistance. What follows is a violent life and death struggle as Ma Ma sets her army of thugs onto them- indeed, Dredd is pretty much one long violent set piece.

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Its simple, its direct, its violent. Its a wonderful throwback to films like Dirty Harry (which is perfect as that film, and Eastwood’s Harry persona,  was obviously a big influence on the original strip back in the day), and the films of John Carpenter’s glory days such as Escape From New York, complete with a thundering techno score eerily reminiscent of Carpenters own early scores. Anybody who loves those films will find much to enjoy here. Its a kind of movie we don’t see much of anymore.

The film has inevitably attracted some criticism for its violence but I think its simply because its a violence that hurts, and I’d contend that this is preferable to that of most action films nowadays. In most action films we see now, characters are depicted surviving fights and stunts that would rip arms and legs off – its a cartoon videogame-influenced violence with characters as indestructible as Captain Scarlet. I much prefer violence that has a sense of reality- I remember back in 1982 how violent Blade Runner seemed; not because of how much action there was in it, but rather because the action resulted in cuts and bruises and broken bones to the characters to the effect that the audience empathised and felt the violence.

Dredd may be the perfect Judge Dredd movie.  Yes, I guess we’d all like to have seen more of Mega City One as it was in the comic,  but I guess a true depiction of the comic’s world would require a huge sprawling blockbuster budget, and we’ve already seen where that leads with Stallone’s frankly anaemic version some years back. Keeping to a low budget (reported between $35-$45 milllion) allowed the film-makers to stay true to the comics violent, nihilistic tone. That further Dredd films may have indeed managed to show more of the comic’s wider canvas just makes everything regards its financial failure even more depressing. I can only hope, vain as it may be, that Dredd‘s possible success on home video (because there really does seem to be a lot of people like me who were turned off by the original theatrical emphasis on 3D who are buying it on disc now) might result in a rethink regards green lighting another film. Because I’m sure there is a market for future Dredd films- its just that this crazy preoccupation the post-Avatar movie industry has right now, with turning film experiences into amusement rides, has simply got to stop. Its not about the technology and being able to charge the punters more, its about the storytelling.

Word has it that Dredd only got greenlit at all because of the 3D angle, and I firmly believe from my personal experience that, ironically, that is what killed it at the box-office. There is a lesson there but I doubt anyone’s taking stock of it in Hollywood. That’s really the most depressing thing about it all. I’ll say it again- its not about the technology and being able to charge the punters more, its about the storytelling.  Please. 

3 thoughts on “Dredd (2012)

  1. I can see the logic of the film’s backers in wanting 3D — when it was at the greenlighting stage, Avatar was the biggest thing in the world, and with all the push the format was getting I can see why they wanted a piece of the pie. Obviously it didn’t pan out that way, and it especially doesn’t work for a film like Dredd because I think older viewers are more sceptical of 3D (as a rule) and, at 18 here and R in the States, this clearly isn’t a kids’ film. I’ve never seen so many people online trying to find out if and where 2D showings were (and there were very few).

    I’ve also been told that, Stateside, it was very poorly advertised and not that easy to find, doubly so in 2D (just as the UK, then). I wonder if Lionsgate didn’t feel too invested in making it a success so didn’t invest too much in selling it. Plus the geek buzz of “it’s just The Raid in the future” probably didn’t help. Not that many people actually saw that in the cinema, despite what the attention it’s received in some circles would have you believe — indeed, Dredd actually grossed over three times as much in US cinemas as The Raid.

    I too thought it was excellent, a real hard-hitting ‘real-world’ take on the Dredd universe but also true to the characters and tone (largely). There are clearly grand plans for follow-ups, so I do hope it does sufficiently well for someone to think it justifies the punt. That’s more or less how Kick-Ass got its sequel… but that actually did better at the box office than most perceived, did phenomenally on DVD/BD, and had Matthew Vaughn in its corner, which is how they got the first film independently funded, never mind a sequel. I’m not sure Dredd has those advantages, sadly.

  2. I do wonder how much those of us who read the comic fill in the gaps left by the budget restrictions. How much any of it makes sense to viewers unfamiliar with the comic? I mean, we know it is a fascist police state, massive overcrowding, insane crimes etc… but how much of that does the film get across on its own? How much does that impact the enjoyment of newbies?

    1. I think the opening voice over, plus the way Dredd deals with the van of drug users, was designed to establish most of those notions. But as you say, when you know the world you fill in any blanks automatically, letting the information in the establishing stuff wash by a little bit; how easy it was to grasp so quickly for complete newbies, I don’t know.

      But then, for the purposes of the main story here, it’s a fairly standard dystopian future. Reaction from those that did see it seems to have been largely positive, best I can tell (the worst comments seem to be from long-term fans who wanted even more faithfulness), so I think it was getting them in in the first place that proved the stumbling block.

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