I put my ipod into its cradle in my car, selected “I am the Law” by Anthrax, pumped the volume high and began to drive home. A few minutes later, I was pulled over by Niagara cops as part of their R.I.D.E. checks. I killed the volume, wound the window down. The car ahead was stopped, interrogated and asked to move along.

I thought I had gotten away with it – they weren’t going to ask me any questions. I was beaning and on a sugar high – a medium double double, double-choc donut and adrenalin pump from watching an awesome movie.  “How much have you had to drink tonight, sir?”

Every fibre of me screamed to pump the gas, careen onto the sidewalk and pull away, shouting out the window “You’ll never take me alive coppa!”

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” was all I could conjure.

“Where are you coming from?” Steel eyed cop glare.

I wanted to say with pride: “Coming home from the Judge Dredd movie, punk!”, but I acquiesced and lowered my excitement level, “Just been to the movies…”

The irony that I was pulled over on the way home from a movie about an unstoppable police officer, whilst listening to a thrash metal song about the same was not lost on me. But perhaps it was the most fitting end to the evening. Thankfully, being excited about seeing a comic book movie and driving under the influence of caffeine and sugar isn’t illegal and I was waved on home.

First off, full disclaimer. I’ve been a Judge Dredd fan since sometime around 1981-82. I read progs 280-560 when they first came out, numerous reprints of the early issues, played the RPGs, the tabletop games, the boardgames, the video games and still subscribe to the 2000AD comic. I also enjoyed the hell out of the first Judge Dredd movie with Sly Stallone in it, despite how corny and crappy it was.

So, then, this is not a review, but more of a fan critique.  I won’t be judging the new movie on the grounds of it as a movie – plenty of other accredited and “objective” articles will be doing that – but as a vehicle for fan enjoyment and the franchise in general.

Dredd 3D is what I might call a classic police thriller, it just happens to be set in a visceral future. It is a dark, brutal and unrepentant portrayal of a dystopian city. Its science fiction trappings are light, almost swept under the rug. In this future, there are no police, only the Judges who are empowered to arrest, try, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot. The main character is Judge Dredd, a senior Judge who is taking rookie Cassandra Anderson – on her “training day” and assessment. They are called in to Peachtree Block, which is a hotbed of gang warfare under the gang kingpin – Ma Ma.  So far, there is nothing to separate the movie from the hundreds of other police dramas out there.  In my opinion, that’s a good thing. Here’s why:

Dredd’s first outing, way back in 1995, tried to do TOO much. It combined four or five different stories and couldn’t do justice to any of them. It also tried to play things far too big. The world of Judge Dredd is simply far too big, dense and quite frankly, weird to cram into two hours of movie. Even a cursory reference to this will just get lost and worse misunderstood. The comic has had 35 years to fill out and grow a varied landscape of textures and ideas.

This time around Dredd 3D confines us inside one block of the city – home to 75, 000 citizens – guilty and innocent alike. We get to see it in detail – every gritty, sordid, rotten meter, from the underground all the way up to the penthouses. We see how the city works – the homeless, the young spugs skating, the future-less kids, the grieving widows, the criminals out to make a name for themselves, the misguided youths – their whole world reflected in their actions. This whole movie is literally a cross-section of the entire city and we see in every grim encounter why the Judges are needed. This isn’t a police state that is keeping everything in order, spick and span, through fanatical or fascist measure – as perhaps the Singapore of today is, but it is a police state that is struggling to keep order alive in a city that is literally falling apart. The city is so big and the highly trained judges are so few, that only 6% of the city can be properly overseen.  Drastic shit needs to happen.

The production design on the movie is an intriguing mix. When I saw the trailer for the movie, I was initially disappointed. The design of the city was very sparse, bleak, cheap looking. The vehicles were old, decrepit, more apt to be found in Soviet-era Eastern Europe than the glitzy metropolises of future North America.  Seeing it on the big screen, I realized it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Mega-City is decrepit. It is corrupt. It is ugly. It is backward. The Mega-City One of the 1995 movie is a comic book one. It has always been portrayed as a pop-oriented splash of colour and culture. A future of commercialism run amuck. It is bright, filled with advertisements and the latest mindless entertainments.  The Mega-City One of Dredd 3D owes more to Kowloon City – a drab, crumbling edifice of civilization where the Law cannot afford to go. The shiny, curvy vehicles that populated the sets of the 1995 movie are the product of a prosperous, decadent society, able to create flashy, desirable products – they don’t belong in the 2012 movie. This tattered Mega-City is more appropriate for the tone of the movie. Its not the City of the comic, but it is very convincing.

Classic Dredd by Brian Bolland

I think that word is really the key to understand Dredd 3D’s appeal. It is convincing. It is an excuse to have the Judges be as controlling, as vicious, as relentless as they need to be. And they are. They are the only ones on the scene who are trying to take control of a steadily worsening situation. The citizens have given up – even the local militias wait in the wings, unable to do anything. The Judges need to kick doors, take names and ventilate heads just to make progress. The situation is extreme and when such a situation needs to be shown, it needs to be convincing in order to get the audience to take notice and not dismiss it out of hand. In the Stallone movie, the situation of crime in the city was easy to dismiss – at no point did it feel dangerous enough that a policeman would be forced to take a life, that their “fascist” approach was justified. No so with Dredd 3D. Dredd is tough and brutal, but he is fair, even when pushed over the line. Commit a crime and you’ll do the time, and you believe it.
Dredd is an interesting character on the screen. The comic-book character is obviously a deep homage to Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, so basically any actor has to look at those movies and give us a gnarly Harry Callahan. Stallone gave us something that was… not quite as close to Dirty Harry as one might want, but he had some grit here and there. Karl Urban gives us, mostly, a restrained Dirty Harry – I wanted him to go further, but I’m glad he didn’t. He was the character without being a caricature, which would have undermined the convincing quality already mentioned.

The dialog was spot on – Dredd choosing his words very carefully, but not simplistic, and delivered emphatically. This is a man who is in control, even when things aren’t. He is precisely the kind of cop you want – never giving in to evil. As with the comic, Dredd has a sense of humour, even though it doesn’t quite come across as humour. The jokes are more gravelly observation with a sardonic bent. I’m not sure the average North American movie-goer gets this humour or appreciates it. There was one line, delivered so perfectly in my opinion, that cause myself and my friend to laugh out loud, but we were the only ones.  I figured there’d be one famous line that is so Judge Dredd, er, Dirty Harry – “You’re next punk!” but screen writer Alex Garland must have deliberately avoided that – also perhaps a good thing.

Once again, the world Dredd inhabits is so over the top in the comics, and so is he, that he sublimates into a straight man. It is so crazy that the viewer has to cling to the thing that is closest to rationality – Dredd himself.   But the world of Dredd 3D is over-the-top in a different way and the character needs to be roped in a bit in order to be taken seriously.  It is easy to see this by comparing the two costume designs. The 1995 movie costumes were designed by Gianni Versace, which looked okay on screen, but were still quite ridiculous, owing more to fashion and style than the rigeurs of life on the streets of MC-1: the padding  was there, but he was conspicuously open. Karl Urban’s Dredd costume is practical body armour, covering most of his body, streamlined for fighting and quick movement, but also protective enough for him to take a metric shit-kicking. For a comparison, check out this article on the Judge Minty fan site.

Olivia Thirlby’s character, Cassandra Anderson, is also weighted more realistically. In the comic she is irrepressible and flippant, always making jokes and forever making Dredd the humourless one by comparison. In Thirlby’s Anderson, we see a character who needs to harden up fast, even though she’s not a naive innocent. Its a little while into the movie before she becomes the confident Psi-Judge we’re more familiar with. She is a lot more in control than we think she is and does kick ass. In many police thrillers with rookie cops, we see them make mistake after mistake and fall to pieces when things don’t go right, but Thirlby’s character is held down only by the ethics of the job, rather than the skill demands. She is capable and intelligent, something her adversaries don’t realize till far too late. I’m glad the film-makers made good use of her talents (both the character and the actress) without adding “token scenes” to demonstrate her contribution, as was all too noticeable in the 1995 movie.  If there is a second Dredd movie, and it goes where I think it might, Anderson will have a crucial part and think the characterization will work well with Thirlby playing it.

Cinematically, the movie is a mixed bag. It has some glorious moments – the Slo-Mo sequences are very interesting and quite beautiful, very imaginative. Like some technicolour dreamland extended into our own world, with prismatic effects and sparkles that punched through the screen. I feel that these moments brought us back to rich and stylish art of the comic book world, but contained within the realism of the movie.  Some sequences felt like they could have been choreographed better, or edited more tightly, but they didn’t detract from the overall experience. There are tons of Easter eggs for the observant Dredd fan – mostly in the form of sprayed graffiti. I saw the obvious Chopper tag, “fatties rule”, Kenny Who? but missed many more, even the ones I knew about such as “Minty rules” put in as a nod to the Judge Dredd fan film “Judge Minty” coming out in November.  I think I saw an Ump’s Candy poster in there as well, but I could be mistaken.  (ed: I came across this article about the Easter eggs in the movie – I was right about the Umps, but missed some awesome ones, definitely worth checking out: Top 10 Easter Eggs in Dredd 3D)  There are moments where the cinematography, production design and lighting comes together in such a way that a comic-book frame appears magically on the screen, so naturally and perfectly the comic book Dredd.

Comic brought to life, Picture perfect – Karl Urban as Dredd

The movie is unapologetically violent. It is brutal, in-your-face, violence. It is stylish at times and disgusting at others. I feel that that is the way it should be. It forces us to take the criminals seriously and makes the Judge’s job that much more necessary. There are some gore shots that you feel in your gut and some that you just want to savour, frame by frame, because it is so weirdly beautiful.  The same goes for the comic, which also never flinched in the face of violence, despite being aimed toward teens, it left things mostly to your imagination, yet still made you feel it. I feel that the 1995 version was mostly sanitized in its depictions of violence and lost believability, both in terms of the dire need of the world and its own seriousness.

My only fan disappointment with the new movie was the respirator. Even the Lawmaster bikes look good on the screen, despite their weird design.  The respirator of the comic is housed in the shield that tops the Judge’s helmet. The Judge can pull it down his face, over his mouth, to filter out toxins, but Mr. Urban has to pull a filter from a pocket and put it into his mouth. Clearly, not a big deal, but with all the attention to detail the movie-makers have done, it seemed a little out of place.  Everything else seemed believable, realistic, yet still tied to the comic. There are a few times that you see a spug or criminal with a weapon that is clearly from “today” or even in some cases like the Heckler & Koch MP5 from the 60s… but that somehow seemed alright. This is a backward city, after all.

My conclusion, its worth seeing if you’re a fan and even if you’re not, its an eye opening experience. Yes, it lends itself to a lot of things you’ve already seen, so its not a completely new ride, but it has a lot of surprises. I can’t wait to see it again and to see a sequel on the big screen.

Bring on the Dark Judges!!

Fire, Fear, Mortis and Death.

Image Credit: Lionsgate Films for movie still/poster, Rebellion Publishing for comic art.


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