Friday 7 September 2012
(Pete Travis, 2012) Judge Dredd, the classic British sci-fi comic character, is tricky to adapt to other formats. Dredd himself is a fabulously simple creation; a bad-ass fascist lawman who never ever compromises, never removes his helmet, rarely displays or admits to any human emotion, and imposes the law, often against impossible odds, through sheer force of will and incredible violence. It is the contrast between that character and the vivid world he inhabits that makes the comics so compelling and such fun. Dredd lives in Mega City One, an immense megapolis covering most of the Eastern American Seaboard, walled off from the nuclear waste of the "Cursed Earth" and populated by an endless series of freaks, psychotics and eccentrics. Many of these citizens reside in colossal blocks hundreds of stories tall, housing hundreds of thousands. Crime is rife, life cheap, the whole thing appearing to teeter on the brink of collapse at all times. It's very much the product of Britain in the 1970s, both grim and satirical, angry and hilarious. The previous film adaptation - Danny Cannon's 1995 blockbuster Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone - managed to mangle both character and setting, allowing Dredd to turn into just another, slightly angrier-than-usual Stallone hero, while Mega City One became an anonymously glossy future city familiar from a dozen other films. Travis' new version, written by Alex Garland, has a much smaller budget and seemingly much greater determination to capture what it is that makes the character special. Shooting in Urban South Africa with only a few cgi alterations works; Mega City One here feels like a real, gritty, troubled city, teeming and crumbling, its judges dwarfed by the crime they are tasked with preventing and punishing. Anthony Dod Mantle's terrific cinematography certainly doesn't hurt; there is a lived-in, organic feel to the spaces he captures, always sensitive to the play of shadow, absent from too much science fiction. But the achievement is more obviously Garlands; his decision to locate Dredd in a nasty, simple genre story is one that works beautifully. That story finds Dredd (Karl Urban) and the psychic rookie Judge he is evaluating, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) investigating a homicide in the immense Peach Trees Block, ruled violently by Druglord Ma Ma (a scowling Lena Heady). When Ma Ma feels threatened, she shuts down the entire block, trapping the Judges, and sets her army on them, forcing Dredd and Anderson to fight their way to survival. That's a basic action set-up that has been done before (most recently in The Raid) but Garland and Travis do it so well; with wit, style and consistently great pacing. They get the characters right, too; Urban portrays Dredd as constantly biting down on his own rage, but possessed of a dark sense of humour; the role requires a lot of his mouth, chin and voice, and Urban responds. He and Garland also ensure that, crucially, Dredd is a complete super-warrior thoughout; never scared, always aggressive, virtually impossible to defeat. Thirlby's Anderson is softer, more human, but her journey to Dredd's respect and a harder countenance is nicely shaded by script and actress, and Garland makes nice use of her psychic abilities. This sort of b-movie material needs to handle its action well, and Travis puts together some outstanding sequences. Making good use of 3D, a couple of the action scenes here capture the effects of the drug "slo-mo", as Dredd's bullets mutilate flesh in agonising, beautiful slow motion. But for the most part, Travis keeps the violence nasty, brutal and utterly thunderous, while Garland ensures it generally advances the plot. But then most scenes here do; this is a satisfyingly tight film, its characterisation and satirical impulses contained beautifully within the detail of what we see as part of the story. It plays almost like a superior episode in a long-running film franchise, and impressively does that while building a convincing, fascinating sci-fi world onscreen and introducing a distinctive, memorable main character. None of these feats are easy, and to combine all three is particularly praiseworthy.