It’s an interesting challenge to try recreating the mindset of earlier times when it was thought entertaining to take a character like Judge Dredd and show him knitting. It seems a lifetime ago, but this happened in 1995 with the hapless Sylvester Stalone cast as the brainwashed hero whose killer instincts had been diverted into domestic skills. I suppose we can dignify this aberration as satirical, yet that rather misses the point of the original. Born in the second issue of the comic, 200AD, Dredd was a direct and powerful indictment of police states and the general trend to authoritarianism. In part, this was why we were never allowed to see his face. When the state turns its attention to questions of justice, it should do so dispassionately. The results of each case should always be the same no matter which judge hears a case nor which defendant is charged. The identities of the individuals potentially gets in the way so, in the comic strip, the enforcer, judge, jury and executioner was faceless.
Mega-City One is a marvelously dystopian creation. With the Earth’s surface largely reduced to radioactive slag, the survivors have huddled together in major conurbations. With land at a premium, the only way to accommodate the millions was to build up. Thanks to the high levels of radiation and pollution, particularly near the outskirts, there are mutants. Some are physical changes, but there are also psychic abilities. In the comic, there are sometimes quite savage commentaries on current trends, e.g. in showing elements of the populations as excessively obese. This is deliberate overeating. Since 90% of the population is unemployed, different groups pass the time rioting, killing people for fun or participating in an Olympics reserved entirely for fatties.
Dredd (2012), the film, keeps the look of the city, complete with its own predator drones but not the fatties, and deals with the first day of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on the job. For these purposes, Dredd (Karl Urban) is assigned the task of evaluating her performance to determine whether she’s suitable to become a judge. In every scene, you can always see her because wearing a helmet interferes with her PSI powers. Fortunately, none of the perps is good enough to make the head shot. This allows the fan boys the chance to ogle the blond while, less importantly, us older viewers can watch the more complex humanity of her expressions as she confronts the reality of the job. Thematically, instead of adopting Stookie as the drug at the heart of this story, the creators have gone for a new product called Slo-Mo. If for no other reason, it gives the cinematographer the chance to create some rather beautiful images as, variously, we’re allowed to savour water in motion, breaking glass and travel in a vertical direction as new art forms.
The drug is manufactured by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) on the top floor of a mega-block. As an encouragement to loyalty, she has three minions skinned and dropped from the top floor to the main entrance atrium. This brings in Dredd and Anderson. At an early point, they arrest Kay (Wood Harris). This provokes Ma-Ma into a lock-down and a determined attempt to kill both judges. This could have been an endlessly violent shoot-em-up version of a video game with the two judges walking down featureless corridors, blowing away the waves of gun-toting gang members with their various weapons. Fortunately, recognising such a script is inherently boring, we get a character-driven thriller based on Anderson’s slow metamorphosis from something of a shrinking violet into a lets-just-get-this done enforcer of the law (as she sees it).
At this point, I’m going to make what might seem an incongruous remark. This is actually an intelligent film exploring some interestingly grey areas of morality. Early on, we see the two sides to Dredd. He ruthlessly dispatches a perp holding a woman hostage — incidentally, the use of the incendiary bullet produces a quite fascinating set of images as the man dies. But he also ignores petty crime in the form of a beggar sitting in the doorway of the mega-block where the murders occurred. This is pleasingly pragmatic. If every citizen turned against the judges, they would not stand a chance. Each judge must therefore find a personal balance between the law as written and the law he or she applies. Imprisoning or executing everyone would inflame resistance. Utilitarianism requires the maximum benefit to the greatest number of people from the way the law is enforced. Anderson must therefore learn to temper her own sword of justice, only pulling it from its scabbard when its use is unavoidable and knowing when to look the other way. In this, her psychic powers are of fundamental importance. Since she can see inside people’s minds, she genuinely can judge their innocence or guilt. Ironically, she’s capable of becoming the fairest executioner of them all.
Yes, Dredd is violent, genuinely earning its R rating, but it’s also visually interesting and carefully paced for the maximum tension and excitement. In this, Lena Headey does a particularly good job as Ma-Ma. You really do need a ruthless antagonist and she delivers the right qualities of viciousness. She enjoys every minute of her battle with the judges and lets nothing stand in the way of facing down the judges. The fact she has a mega-building full of hostages and has no compunction in killing them, makes her an appropriate challenge. Karl Urban does all the right things with his voice. Let’s be honest. He doesn’t need to move the stubble on his chin that much. The helmet does the acting for him. Olivia Thirlby is outstanding as you watch her body language shift from uncertain to ever greater certainty. This is a truly great version of the comic original, respecting its intentions and carefully avoiding everything associated with the earlier Hollywood version. You should definitely see it if you enjoy dystopian science fiction with a violent approach to exploring interesting ideas.