Dredd (2012) – Directed by Pete Travis – Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey, and Rakie Ayola.
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As summer turns to fall, my cinematic tastes change. I’m not talking about the changes that I want to see spinning in my Blu-ray player, but rather what I want to see at the theater. In the summer, I prefer my action movies sprinkled with a huge dose of fun; a serious action movie like The Dark Knight Rises can still do the trick, but I’m more inclined to want to see something like The Avengers when it’s hot outside.
When the summer’s over and the autumn starts asserting its influence with the return of the school year and a dip in temperature, I start wanting action movies that are a bit more pure, a bit more hard, a bit more violent.
Pete Travis’ R-rated adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic is a hard, serious, pure action movie, and I love every second of it. DREDD teases, at times, that it’s going to go down the predictable road and turn soft, but it never relents in its uncompromising vision of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a lawman in the dystopian Mega-City One, who does his job and sees his mission through to the end.
Dredd is assigned to evaluate rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thrilby) out on a routine day in the city. DREDD does a fantastic job of making Mega-City One feel real. Sometimes in these post-apocalyptic tales, films can rely a bit too much on just dressing up folks like extras from Mad Max, Escape from New York, and Doomsday, but DREDD largely eschews this aesthetic, and favors a more realistic approach to dressing up the baddies inside Mega-City. The result is a world that feels much more possible; instead of giving us a world that looks dramatically altered from our own, Mega-City looks disturbingly possible.
There are a few costumed crazies running around, but DREDD favors the largely contemporary clothed Ma-Ma gang, led by Madelaine Madrigal (Lena Headey), a former prostitute who has viciously climbed the criminal ladder. She sits at the top of Peach Trees Tower, a 200-story low-income housing block, and when the camera catches sights inside the building of the infirmary and theater, I can see how this building – low income housing that it is – was once something better, something the people of the tower could have felt at home in. DREDD succeeds in these areas because it doesn’t oversell anything.
Ma-Ma has taken control of the Peach Trees and there are seemingly hundreds of normal folk working for her throughout the building. Ma-Ma has a new drug to distribute called Slo-Mo and a turf dispute inside the building brings Dredd and Anderson into her building. One of her lieutenants has caught three guys selling drugs on his floor; Kay (Wood Harris) has caught them before and they didn’t learn their lesson, so now it’s time to do something a bit more permanent. Ma-Ma has them skinned and tossed down the center of the building (Peach Trees is a square building with an empty center) where they land with a sickening thud that catches the attention of the Judges.
It helps the film that it doesn’t try to artificially amp up the tension. There’s no scene where Dredd’s captain says, “The Ma-Ma gang is at it again, Dredd! This is the break we’ve been waiting for! Go get the b*tch!” Instead, Dredd and his evaluee Anderson are exiting the Hall of Justice and Dredd is professionally growling the rules of her evaluation to her, letting her know that the Judges can only respond to a tiny percentage of all reported crimes in Mega-City One (part of an urban sprawl that stretches from Boston to Washington and exists inside a walled-off area) and he tests her on which of a set of crimes they should respond. It’s her choice to head to Peach Trees.
When they arrive at the massive structure, there’s no, “Wait, rookie, this is Ma-Ma’s ground” or any of that. There’s literally so much crime in Mega-City One that a drug lord can take over an entire 200-story building and there are Judges who are not acutely aware of the massive problems in this tower.
I am not going to make the case that DREDD is a super-intelligent movie, but I am going to argue that there’s clearly been a lot of thought that’s gone into all aspects of the film’s production. This is a very well made movie. Critics are often far too willing to dismiss a movie like this as a “dumb action flick” because they’re so blinded by the action that the movie fronts that they miss (or don’t care about) the background details, but time and again, the small decisions that are made by the production crew result in a better film, and the idea that everything that happens here unfolds organically instead of being accompanied by all sorts of artificial fanfare gives the film a sharper edge. Perhaps it sounds a bit counter-intuitive that to make a story feel bigger you need to undersell it, but that’s often the case.
In other words, to make us feel that a story is important, show us that it is instead of simply telling us that’s the case.
DREDD does that through a wide variety of narrative and aesthetic “little” decisions, so when a big decision is made – such as Ma-Ma dropping the Towers’ blast doors after Dredd and Anderson capture Kay, effectively sealing the entire building inside an impenetrable cocoon – it rings louder. She gets on the building’s PA system and announces that there’s two Judges in the building and she wants them dead. All of the regular residents scatter back into their homes, and the Judges realize this is definitely not a good situation.
Even here, though, the Judges do not panic.
Karl Urban is fantastic as Judge Dredd, this growling, by-the-book, uncompromising lawman who never takes off his helmet. He’s not robotic, but he is in control of himself. After Ma-Ma’s announcement, he doesn’t panic, but does acknowledge the difficulty of their situation, telling Anderson they need to get out of the open. The moment the film won me over was after Ma-Ma and her goons use these massive gatling guns to completely eviscerate an entire section of one floor of housing. People are slaughtered left and right, indiscriminately killed in Ma-Ma’s attempt to kill Dredd and Anderson. The two cops escape outside the building (jumping onto a skate ramp that’s outside, near the building’s middle) and can finally call their situation in, but then Dredd determines they need to go back inside. By now, the guns have stopped firing and Ma-Ma’s thugs are searching the ruins and casualties for the two Judges. The camera sticks with Ma-Ma as we hear some new gunfire, and then across the way, we see the menacing figure of Dredd emerge from the smoke and unceremoniously toss Ma-Ma’s first lieutenant over the ledge, and then simply walks back into the smoke, leaving Ma-Ma standing silently on the other side.
There’s no quip from Dredd, no verbal threat … just the sense that Dredd is doing his job and that he doesn’t need his mouth to make his point. When he does use his voice later, however, after he gets control of the Towers’ PA system, it’s to briefly remind everyone in Peach Trees that, “Ma-Ma isn’t the law. I am the law.” Simple, straightforward, and spoken from a position of strength only allowed someone when they know they are in the right.
Dredd keeps this same tone through the entire film, and the film doesn’t attempt to give him a sense of humor or have him develop a new sense of humanity, and I can’t say how thankful I am for those decisions.
DREDD teases us, though, with the possibility we might have to watch these stock character arcs play out. Our main Judge gets a cute rookie sidekick, after all, who isn’t just a rookie, isn’t just a woman, isn’t just cute, but also has psychic abilities, meaning she’ll be able to tell us how everyone feels. It’s an obvious set-up, right? The emotional rookie will touch the heart of the old grouch, and by the end of the film he’ll compromise the law and make the wrong legal decision in order to make the right emotional decision.
Well, it doesn’t happen. As I mentioned, Dredd isn’t a robot. We see him compromise the absolute letter of the law as he acknowledges that sometimes you have to prioritize one crime over another. By the strictest letter of the law, Anderson fails her evaluation the moment she loses her gun, but Dredd still lets her pass. The film doesn’t present this as a huge moment of softening, however. Before he can render his judgment on her performance, Anderson angrily asserts her own agency in the matter, telling Dredd that she knows she’s failed and that she knows she’s going to do something with her life other than being a Judge. When the day has been won, she walks off alone and isn’t even present when Dredd tells the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) that she has passed the evaluation.
Olivia Thirlby delivers one of those quietly great performances that no awards committee will ever recognize, but one that helps to make DREDD a much better film. (Have I mentioned lately how much I hate awards?) When I saw her sitting in the Hall of Justice, looking all cutesy and a bit mousey, I was worried that we were going to get stuck with a character in this movie that didn’t belong in this movie, that she’d be the character we’d “identify” with and whose constant screaming and shaking was supposed to tell us how serious everything was. When she gets a little too close to psychically reading beneath Dredd’s surface, I was groaning that we were going to find out he saw his puppy dog get murdered or something to make him a more sympathetic character.
Blessedly, the filmmakers continually frustrate those expectations. Anderson has come up short in her exams, but because she has psychic abilities, the Chief Judge wants to give her another crack, and has arranged for Dredd to take her out on a field test. Anderson is certainly a bit nervous, but she’s also dead set on proving herself. When she has one bad buy injured and bleeding before her, she hesitates on killing him, but when Dredd reminds her what this man’s sentence is, she pulls the trigger and kills him. Later, they end up in the apartment of this man’s wife, but there’s no overblown emotional reaction. Instead, the woman does what Dredd and Anderson want in order to get them out of her apartment and off her floor in order that they don’t kill her husband. Anderson sees a picture of the woman’s husband, realizes who it is, and leaves the apartment; instead of this moment causing Anderson to break, it hardens her and the film never comes back to it.
Dredd, Ma-Ma, Kay, Anderson … all of these characters are adults who do their job.
The conception of the Anderson character also shows how smartly DREDD has been assembled. One of the complaints about the Sylvester Stallone-starring Judge Dredd is the inclusion of the Rob Schneider goofball character, but the decisions to include Schneider’s character and Anderson are the same – they’re here to provide a balance to Dredd’s grimness. Where that earlier film went a bit over-the-top on the silly side, this current film is much more subtle in creating Dredd’s antithesis. Anderson has a softness to her that’s accentuated by Thirlby’s soft features. Big things help reinforce the contrast between them, such as Anderson not wearing a helmet (she argues a helmet can negatively affect her psychic abilities), but all the little things help, too, like Anderson’s gender, height, and unkempt blonde hair. She’s still a Judge, though, and she’s good at it, too, such as when she fights Kay inside of his mind, using her mental abilities to work his brain over in an arguably worse way than Dredd roughed up Kay’s body, or when she gets captured by Kay and brought to Ma-Ma and never loses her head.
There is some humor in the film, but it’s squeezed out of Dredd acting in character, rather than having him work against his character. They’re not hilarious moments, but when he tosses Ma-Ma’s first lieutenant over the railing, I laughed. Or when the Chief Judge asks him what happened in Peach Trees and he stoically replies, “Drug bust.” It’s situationally funny, not a display of Dredd having a finely honed sense of humor.
I have not read much of the Judge Dredd comic in my time, so I can’t tell you that DREDD is true to the character, but I can tell you that I went to this movie wanting to see a serious, violent, action movie, and that’s what this film delivers. Uncompromising is the word I keep coming back to, as I never feel that the filmmakers have altered what their movie wants to be in order to meet some set of industry expectations for how a superhero/action movie should behave.
In that uncompromising vein, I love DREDD not just for what it is, but what it represents.
I can’t wait to see it again.