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Dredd 3D (2012,USA/UK)

17/09/2012

Director: Pete Travis          Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey

I’ve never been much of a comic geek, at least as far as Marvel and DC are concerned. I was never more than vaguely interested in all those American superhero comics. In my giddy youth the only comic that really seemed to matter to me (once I’d outgrown the Dandy and Beano) was that seminal work of British greatness, 2000AD. For those of you who have never encountered that particular publication all you really need to know that it was a glorious work of genius, a darkly satirical, witty, violent, extremely imaginative collection of outlandish sci-fi stories wrapped up in a meta-fictional narrative of an alien magazine editor, the legendary Mighty Thargg from Betelgeuse VI. For a young lad in his formative years the moral complexity and magnificent artwork of 2000AD left a lasting impression, undoubtedly permanently cementing certain expectations and preferences in my mind. Again, for those of you who don’t know, Judge Dredd is one of the most iconic and enduring characters ever to appear in the pages of that hallowed publication.

Joe Dredd’s first movie outing in 1995 was a bit of a disaster. History has consigned it to the scrapheap as an abject failure and while it is a terrible film there were a handful of things to like about it, however some dementedly bad casting (Stallone as Dredd, the inclusion of Rob Schneider as the Judge’s comic relief sidekick), mis-judged campness and  the cardinal sin of Dredd removing his helmet (something that never occurred in the strip and was considered the final nail in the film’s coffin by fans) snuffed out whatever good points may have existed and left the ’95 movie little more than a bitter, traumatic memory that everybody tried to forget.

Seventeen years later and an Alex Garland script later and we have a very different prospect with Dredd 3D. I’ll confess to feeling more than a little apprehensive about the new film, not least because of a trailer that seemed to be a shot-for-shot reconstruction of the trailer for Gareth Evans most excellent The Raid suggesting that the film was going to be a somewhat lower-octane version* of that hyper-kinetic action fest. Truth be told there are striking similarities when it comes to plot. In Dredd, Judge Dredd (Urban) and rookie Judge-in-waiting Anderson (Thirlby) attend a triple homicide at Peach Trees Block in the sprawling, post-apocalyptic metropolis of Mega City 1. When they get there they become the focus of local drug lord Ma-Ma (Headey) who puts the towering skyscraper into lockdown and sends her army of gangsters out for Judge blood. In The Raid, a swat team raid a drug dealer’s hi-rise only to find themselves trapped in the building as the dealer in question sends his army of minions after the cops to make sure they never leave. Sound familiar?

As it turns out, my reservations were mostly unfounded. Granted, the plot is more or less the same for the two films but the execution, the feel is completely different. The emphasis on the action here is very much on gunplay, the aesthetic much more aligned with Dredd’s comic origins. It’s not better or worse than The Raid, just different. So much so that I don’t really want to dwell on the comparison and so shan’t mention The Raid any further. The question is, after all, how does Dredd 3D measure up to the iconic comic character that it’s attempting to bring to life?

In short, the answer is “rather well”. The extreme futurism of the comic has been toned down a bit, whether this is a deliberate artistic decision or a budgetary constraint I am not quite certain, but rather than compromising the integrity of the film it lends it a more believable aesthetic. Perhaps believable is the wrong word, maybe plausible is more suitable, the recognisable technology giving a comfortable touchstone to help anchor the vision of a bleak future where society has gone hideously, hideously wrong. The epic landscape of Mega City 1 (courtesy of a digitally enhanced Cape Town) certainly looks the part, even if it doesn’t completely align with the look of the comic but the essence is there and that’s what’s important – it feels (there’s that word again) like the real deal.

Any uncertainty I may have felt about Urban being cast as Dredd evaporated very quickly. There can be little doubt that he has nailed it here, the stern, downturned mouth, the frosty stoicism, the cast iron belief that he is the law – all of it is there and utterly convincing. He looks right. He sounds right. He doesn’t take the helmet off. And so, despite a bit of a costume redesign (the comic Judge uniforms may work fine on paper but would be a little impractical in reality, a fact lost on the makers of the ’95 version) he looks like Dredd, sounds like Dredd and most importantly of all, feels like Dredd. The same could be said of Olivia Thirlby’s Anderson. I always had a thing for Anderson in the comics, the drop dead gorgeous powerful telepath of the PSI Division of the Judges, and I’ll admit that after Dredd 3D I still have a thing for Anderson. Thirlby manages to balance sexy with competent, never seeming anything less than independent and capable and being all the more attractive for it. Arguably she gets better scenes than Dredd (her telepathic interrogation of a suspect was a particular highlight for me) and she certainly gets to kick plenty of ass over the course of the movie. The dynamic between her and Urban is excellent – Dredd’s steely resilience proving a sharp contrast to Anderson’s more sensitive demeanour. Headey is fantastic too as the scarred (inside and out) Ma-Ma, as ruthless and cunning as her Game Of Thrones character but without the charming exterior.

The make or break on a Dredd film is always going to be how they approach the notion central to the comic – that of the Judges being the sole judge, jury and executioner when it comes to enforcing the law. Essentially the by product of Franco’s Spain, Dredd is a peculiar beast, a future fascist anti-hero who dispenses capital punishment summarily as the law sees fit. The biggest mistake the ’95 film made was trying to soften this aspect of the character, a blunder far more fundamental than taking off Dredd’s helmet. The new movie approaches this aspect with unprecedented gusto. It’s depiction of the violent punishments handed down by the Judges is utterly unflinching, extremely graphic and actually quite shocking. It’s not as if there is anything here that hasn’t been depicted in the comic, but the realisation of the action on film has increased its power to shock. The use of slow motion in the film is superb. Coupled with the 3D effects (which I traditionally find extremely annoying and in fact in the rest of the film did) these slow motion scenes stand out as gloriously rendered, comic book style panels which give the shockingly violent moments they portray a stylised beauty that has to be seen to be believed. Once again it comes down to feel, and these moments feel like they belong among the graphic beauty of 200AD’s history.

Is it an exact rendition of the much loved comic? No. What it is, is a carefully translated version of the comic, tweaked for the screen in a way which has captured the essence of the character and the comic without comprimising any of the important details. And frankly, it’s about time.

*There is probably fertile ground for arguments about who wrote what first and therefore who was ripping off who or indeed that two writers came up with a similar concept at the same time. It’s academic really, what’s important is that The Raid got to cinemas first and was the first of the two films that I saw. If you haven’t seen it, be sure and do, it’s brilliant. But for an action movie of any kind it’s a pretty difficult act to follow.

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