Note 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.
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.