Much has been made about the state of the Hollywood industry today, certainly with regards to its blockbuster fare: over inflated budgets, neutered (family-friendly) content and an overall lack of originality stemming from countless remakes/reboots has ignited much cynicism. It’s a system that now feels fairly safe and uninspired in comparison to the cinema of twenty/thirty years ago, though thanks to a small resurgence of films trying to recapture the spirit of what many of us consider to be the days of classic action cinema it seems that the tides may have turned and that the good old R-rated actioner is back in full force. And at $45 million proves once again that less is indeed more.
Adapted from the Judge Dredd (John Wagner/Carlos Ezquerra, 1977) tales featured in the seminal British comic series 2000 AD, Dredd takes place in the dystopian metropolis of Mega-City One. Located in North America it’s one of few mega-cities known across the globe, designed to shield its inhabitants from the radioactive wasteland known as the “Cursed Earth”, brought on by countless world-wars. 800 million residents and a reported crime rate of 17,000 per day has forced into action a new kind of justice system, which appoints specially trained officers as “Judges”, empowering them with the right of judge, jury and executioner. The most feared of all Street Judges is Joseph Dredd (Karl Urban), who, after finishing up a routine case, is assigned to evaluate rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby).
Anderson had previously been considered a failure but happens to be a gifted psychic and one believed to be a potentially great asset to the force. Soon after she and Dredd respond to the brutal murders of three men outside of the 200-story “Peach Trees” tower block they learn that it’s home to a ruthless crime lord known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who has been manufacturing “Slo-Mo”, a new drug which significantly slows down its user’s perception of time. Dredd and Anderson infiltrate the building and quickly apprehend one of Ma-Ma’s key henchmen, Kay (Wood Harris). Knowing that Kay will spill under pressure back at HQ, Ma-Ma orders a lockdown on the building, refusing to release its blast shields until the two judges inside are found dead.
The first 18-rated film to reach the number 1 spot across British theatres in the past two years, Pete Travis’s Dredd is a deserving tribute to its original source, fully endorsed no less by John Wagner, who has spoken of his excitement in finally getting to see his world brought to life in true fashion as this year celebrates the 35th anniversary of 2000 AD. Fortunate enough to have been given a second opportunity to be brought to the silver screen (itself a drawn out process) it frankly needed to be as ballsy as the source material - which wasn’t exactly written with a young demographic in mind.
Notably Dredd adopts an unusual opening as it dispenses with any kind of deep back story, in favour of utilising a simpler set-up to establish the ravaged wasteland it takes place in. As a basic introduction to our central protagonists the move works surprisingly well, showing an admirable lack of desire to spoon-feed its viewers by over peppering its characters, while humanising them enough to generate the required amount of care. Part of the problem of the ’95 feature - much like Anderson being “Thrown into the deep end” here - was that it attempted to deal far too many cards given the wealth of information already out there, whereas Dredd simply can’t afford to do that; in fact Alex Garland’s original and overambitious script underwent a major re-write to accommodate budget constraints, not to mention avoid confusing an unversed crowd. As such, what we have here is a thumping action spectacle which finds its tone early on and just gets down to business, whilst still retaining the political idiosyncrasies of its source material and serving somewhat as a worrying indictment of the world we live in.
Aesthetically, Dredd has been met with some mixed reactions - not having the kind of Blade Runner-esque scope employed in Danny Cannon’s offering and neither being as fully embraced as its comic counterpart. It’s easy to see how the small budget has affected this new take on the franchise, though it’s far from being worse off for it thanks to Travis’s clever use of angles and the convincing CG used to create the vastly populated tower blocks of Mega-City One. Shot largely in Johannesburg, South Africa and tinged in dirty hues, Dredd’s environment - much like Christopher Nolan’s alternative take on the Batman franchise - is an altogether grounded reality, affording a frighteningly realistic vision of our future. With most of the action taking place indoors Travis composes many of his shots tightly, which may not be entirely beneficial toward its 2.35:1 ratio but still works in delivering a cramped atmosphere as Dredd and Anderson navigate winding corridors with uncertainty.
And it’s ferociously violent to boot. Granted, the risk of making a hard R rated Dredd limits box office takings if ever hopes of a sequel are to shine but you can’t help but admire Pete Travis’s uncompromised take on the material and a studio which has allowed him to do so; a director who has managed to imbue his feature with some Verhoeven-like flair (look out for some Robocop references, which in itself was inspired by the Dredd character) by mixing unsettling and over-the-top gore with sharp satire and a steady amount of tension, well ratcheted by Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score, which forgoes any kind of heroic themes and sticks to a series of slow, unnerving beats and angelic chimes. Shot using 3D cameras, Dredd also makes good use of depth of field, adopting a fairly delicate approach rather than going for easy and forgettable in-your-face moments. An exception, though a desirable one, is the way in which it manages to convey the slow passage of time as experienced through the use of “Slo-Mo”, which often lends the film some strange, though surreally beautiful moments.
The cast is also uniformly solid. Face shielded at all times, Karl Urban grimaces his way through to perfection, with his Eastwood-like raspiness personifying Dredd as would probably be expected. With little to work off in regard to character development, Urban simply does what must be done and comes away as a convincing hero, balancing his serious and dryly humorous sides with much assuredness. Olivia Thirlby gets off to an impressive start as the new kid, showing some promising chemistry between the pair, while Lena Headey gives much to her role as the villainous Ma-Ma; an alarmingly intense performance but one of ambiguity sees an underlying sense of vulnerability come through her subtle facial expressions.
Dredd has yet to open world-wide but as of right now it’s in fully capable hands. Here’s hoping it does more than make back its budget and allow its director and cast to continue exploring its vast world.