TL;DR – A film that combines great action, compelling characters, visual storytelling, and creative worldbuilding making it a must watch
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
There are some films out there that just don’t find their audience the first time around, yet over the years they build upon and continue to find their voice as a slow burn. These are films that are often referred to as Cult Classics. Today I want to take a look at a film that is both of these things. It is an action film, both beautiful and violent, it is a look at society, and also is the home for some of the best one-liners in cinema.
So to set the scene, in the far future the world has been ravaged by war with people crowding into mega cities where violence and murder are commonplace. Long gone are democratic governance and due process, replaced with the Judges. These are judge, jury, and indeed sometimes (a lot of the time) executioners. They have the power to hand out justice as they see fit, only answering to their other judges. One such Judge is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) who is tasked by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) to give a new recruit Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) an evaluation. She had marginally failed the final test but she is the best psychic the Judges had ever seen so this is her sink or swim moment. They can pick anything to respond to so they choose Peach Trees a mega block with 75,000 residents where ‘Ma Ma’ (Lena Headey) had just killed three men and made an example of them. Judges rarely come to Peach Trees, but when they capture one of her key lieutenants Kay (Wood Harris) alive and take him away to be interrogated, Ma-Ma locks down the entire block forcing the Judges to fight their way out.
first thing you see in this film, and one of the key selling points, was how it
integrated slow-motion effects into the narrative. The story justification is
that there is a new drug on the streets called Slo-Mo that slows down the
brain’s interpretation of events. This effect is shown in all its beauty as
water droplets splash back into a bath, and in all its horror as men are gunned
down in slow motion. It is this duality that permeated throughout the film,
like how the Judges are the “good guys” but then they dispense ‘justice’
without any real oversite.
All of this is helped by a world that is filled with detail and life without resorting to exposition dumps, okay there is the opening narration but other than that it is generally show don’t tell. You see this is the set design, you see this in the costumes, in the grime and texture of the film. A lot of this is just creative set dressing and redressing. Being set in Peach Trees means that each floor is almost the same layout with some minor alterations. This makes sense from a world-building perspective because that is the kind of design mentality that you would expect in this world. However, it is not just the same corridors because years of people have made it their own, and you see it throughout the film. This is also where the filmmakers added several references to the wider lore around the Judge Dredd universe as a nod to the fans, without overwhelming new people. Now there are times where they do have to explain things, however, because we have Anderson as a rookie on her first mission it works because it feels like everything is a teaching moment.
this is foremost an action film, and the action is so good, it is also a smart
action film. You see this in the way the action is staged but also how it is incorporated
narratively. One place we see that it is with the Judge’s gun. At no point does
Dredd stop and tell Anderson that “remember
only we can fire the guns or else they will self-destruct.” Instead, we see
as Dredd is getting ready the words ‘DNA Check” appear on the gun and we know
they are important because losing a gun is an instant fail. So when Anderson is
captured there are very few options open to her, we see her allow Kay to dream
about taking her gun and using it, so by the time he picks up the gun to use
it, you know completely what is about to happen without someone having to look
to the camera and explain it. You also see this in the narrative, while no one
outright states that Mega-City One is living under fascist rule, it clearly is,
and we see different characters realise this as the movie goes on.
Indeed it is these character moments that is the other hallmark of the film that captivates you. Karl Urban was born to play Dredd with a baritone voice that carries every infection with power. Dredd never takes off his helmet so Karl has only a small box around his mouth to emote with, so he has to use his body and voice to do that for him and it is amazing to watch. Anderson is the one character that has the clearest character arc throughout the show. She walks into Peach Trees not knowing what to expect, and she walks out of it being not only a Judge but someone who knows their flaws as well. We also see this in how the two start as a reluctant teacher and unprepared student and finishes the movie as a team. It could have been very easy for someone to get lost playing off Karl Urban who treats every line like it is his last, but Olivia Thirlby is here every step of the way and ends up having some of the best badass moments of the film.
add to this, so often in modern action films, the big bad is a bland roadblock
to the hero’s realisation that he has to overcome their own issues. This is not
a bad thing but it gets samey when everyone employs it. In Dredd, we get a main villain who is both instantly compelling but
also clearly complicated. She is someone who has been destroyed by the system
and then uses that same level of violence levelled at her to forward her own agenda.
She is someone who with just a look can command the killing of people or let
you know your time is limited. Here once again we use visual storytelling to
explore the character. Yes, there are clear scars on her face from the damage
of the past but there is more than that. The fact that she is a user of the
drug she is pushing tells you a lot about the character, as does the fact that
she feels completely comfortable getting high in a bath with her gang around
her. She is about as exposed as you could be (note no dead-mans-switch here)
and anyone could have offed her and taken the gang, but no one dared or no one
wanted. It is these moments that elevate Dredd into something amazing to watch
So in the end, do we recommend Dredd? Yes of course we do. Now yes this is with the proviso that it is very violent, so if blood and gore is not your thing then this is not the film for you. But for me, it is the combination of great action, compelling characters, visual storytelling, and creative worldbuilding makes it a must watch. Also, it would be good to see a follow up at some point, but I think that ship has sailed.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Dredd
Directed by – Pete Travis (also maybe Alex Garland, it’s not clear)
Screenplay by – Alex Garland
Based on – Judge Dredd by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra
Music by – Paul Leonard-Morgan
Cinematography by – Anthony Dod Mantle
Edited by – Mark Eckersley
Production/Distribution Companies – DNA Films, IM Global, Reliance Entertainment & Lionsgate
Starring – Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Domhnall Gleeson, Warrick Grier, Deobia Oparei, Francis Chouler, Daniel Hadebe, Rakie Ayola, Langley Kirkwood, Edwin Perry, Karl Thaning, and Michele Levin
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 18A; Germany: 18; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 18; United States: R