When I think Dredd I think curled down upper lip, bristly enormous chin and shoulders broad enough to bear upon them the entire burden of justice. While I did see Sly in the role back in another decade, it’s fair to say that my entire memories of the film have been wiped clean, as if by some dastardly piercing memory cleanser. I therefore see myself as a bit of a blank canvas when it comes to the latest embodiment of Dredd courtesy of director Pete Travis and actor Karl Urban. My first impression of the film was astonishment that Urban manages to out-chin Stallone in the title role, then followed by fleeting disappointment that not once through this film does Karl Urban remove his mask. Which is a shame because Karl Urban is one of my favourites and however much I appreciate his chin I rather like looking at the other bits that go with it.
It’s probably worth – although blindingly obvious – pointing out that I know nothing about the Judge Dredd traditions. I do understand that to some this is comic scripture etched on tablets. I was merely after some decent science fiction. What I got was a science-fictioned Die Hard – a towerblock (set in MegaCity One, a futuristic cubed and tall city) in which Dredd and Anderson, a Rookie Judge (Olivia Thirlby), have to fight for both justice and their lives. Crimes having being done, the tower block is sealed shut by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), sealing within not only her foot soldiers but also everyone dependent on SLO-MO, a drug that defies conceptions of time and place. Death here is no longer instant, a bullet or a fall may feel like they last minutes. Horror is drawn out and extended, relief through oblivion is slow to come.
The plot is simple and straightforward and fundamentally is little more than good versus evil. What makes Dredd stand out is not its story but its style. Everything from the armour wrapped round Dredd’s body, matched with his resolute voice of authority to the towering slums of the block and the slaughter of its inhabitants, are portrayed with ice coolness and red spray. And then there’s the beat of the soundtrack. It pounds a path through the fortress for Dredd and Anderson. The humanity comes from Anderson, a young woman who refuses to wear her helmet because without it she can sense the emotions of those around her. She is vulnerable but she is tougher than Dredd.
Certain scenes stand out, many of them involving Ma-Ma. Here is a female monster, a dragon in her lair who has bewitched and tortured her minions into submission. Dredd is a worthy foe. He, too, seems less than human. Her scars are matched by his helmet but while she is more demon, he is more robot. Anderson is the bridge between the two.
The 3D is superb – it enhances the moments of slow motion perfectly. It helps transport us into this other world, slowed by drugs and speeded up by violence.
I enjoyed Dredd very much but I was still left slightly disappointed. This was a film I wanted to love but I couldn’t because its story was too predictable and inevitable. I realise that if you’re a fan of Judge Dredd then you will spot and understand more of the in-jokes and themes. You’ll have more of an idea of what Travis is trying to achieve. If, like me, you’re in the dark then you may well remain in the dark. It’s probably best to take what you can from it and enjoy its cool and dangerous groove.
Do, though, take a look at my good friend Conojito’s review of Dredd because he has an inkling of the secrets that lie below.