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Not really dreadful but not really Dredd

September 24, 2012

So, I went to see the new Judge Dredd film – called simply Dredd, presumably to differentiate it from the ropey 1995 version starring Sylvester Stallone. As a 44-year-old Brit whose life changed forever when I bought prog 1 of 2000AD back in ’77, it should surprise nobody that Judge Dredd is quite a big deal for me. I have much more invested in this character than I do in, say, John Carter or Conan.

I first saw the trailer over at The Warlock’s Home Brew, and it lowered my expectations immediately because it didn’t look like Mega-City One at all. Mega-City One isn’t flat and post-industrial, with regular oblong city-blocks sticking up out of the smog. Mega-City One is crazy and colourful, cluttered with weird organic-looking buildings like Mick McMahon’s signature “pepper pot” city-blocks. Countless thousands of miles of aerial roadways curl and loop around and through the blocks. Many citizens live in automated mobile homes, travelling the city’s roads non-stop. Carlos Ezquerra nailed the look right at the start, in 1977. If you’re interested, Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker explores Mega-City One’s distinctive cityscape and some of the artists who “built” it on his blog here.

The perps we see in the film look like stock thugs from any gritty American cop movie or TV series you care to name: shaved heads, tattoos, big guns and foul mouths. Wood Harris, who played drugs kingpin Avon Barksdale in The Wire, makes an appearance as – hey! – a drug dealer. (Oddly enough, the last film I saw at the cinema was Prometheus, in which Idris “Stringer Bell” Elba was likewise given a pretty thankless part to play.) Anyway, that’s not what I expect Mega-City One’s perps to look like. Where are the robbers wearing the faces of Laurel and Hardy? Call-Me-Kenneth and the Heavy Metal Kids? Mean Machine Angel with his dial that goes up to 4? Chopper? Judge Death? To be fair, we do see Chopper’s tag on a wall in one shot, and there are similar nods to classic Dredd stories scattered throughout the film, but they’re fleeting and irrelevant to the main plot, which is a humdrum drugs-and-homicide bust. If you’re going to go with lowlife gangsters as your villains, they should at least be apes in sharp suits and hats. And if you’re going to go with drug peddling as your plot hook, the drug should be something like sugar or Umpty Candy, not “slo-mo” which is just an excuse for some self-consciously “cool” 3D effects.

The same goes for the ordinary citizens we see in the film. They’re just that – ordinary. There’s not a kneepad or a beli-wheel in sight. Some kids are skateboarding but no one’s sky-surfing or using Boing!, the miracle plastic. We’re told that unemployment at Peach Trees (the city-block featured in the film) is 96%, if I remember rightly, as if that’s unusual in Mega-City One. It’s not. Robots do most of the work. (Where are they, anyway, with their speech impediments and their homicidal tendencies?) Remember, Chopper’s mum washed dishes all day to pass the time, and his dad’s hobby was heading eggs into a basket! You can’t imagine any of the citizens in Peach Trees doing that. It just doesn’t look or feel like the madcap megalopolis I know. Budgetary constraints are presumably to blame for most of the failings of the production design, but still. It’s a pity. Because you know what? Judge Dredd isn’t really about Judge Dredd. In the same way that the city of Baltimore is the main character in The Wire, Mega-City One is the main character in the comic, and Dredd is the dark lens through which we view it.

But it’s not all bad. The judge’s Lawmaster bikes have wheels this time. That’s a definite improvement, even if we don’t see the bikes much. The Lawgiver handgun works as it should. In the title role, Karl Urban is very good. This is unsurprising. He was decent as a frowny Éomer in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, and stole the show as Dr McCoy in J J Abrams’s Star Trek reboot. He seems to disappear into the character of Joe Dredd as thoroughly as he is encased by the uniform. The fact that he never removes the helmet is, of course, key. I only wish Alex Garland’s script gave him some more jokes. In the comics, Dredd has a nice line in deadpan one-liners that undercuts his hard, inflexible image. He gets one quip in this film, when commenting on the fact that Judge Anderson isn’t wearing her helmet, and it works well.

The script plays fast and loose with the relationship of Dredd to Anderson, but it doesn’t matter especially and Olivia Thirlby is fine as the psychic judge. In the source material, Anderson enjoys teasing “Old Stony Face” but there’s none of that here. Thankfully the film-makers also steered well clear of anything resembling sexual chemistry.

I’ve gone on long enough, but here’s my six-word summary: too much grit, not enough wit. Oddly, I find myself in agreement with one Sylvester Stallone, who in a 2008 interview in Uncut magazine (quoted in Wikipedia) was asked to reflect upon the first Judge Dredd film. It was a missed opportunity, he said. “It didn’t live up to what it could have been. It probably should have been much more comic, really humorous, and fun.” I think the same is true this time around.

In this age of lacklustre Hollywood blockbusters and big-budget, high-quality TV serials like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones, I can’t help thinking that Dredd would work much better as an ongoing, episodic TV series. Season One: Mega-City One (including the Robot Wars); Season Two: The Cursed Earth; Season Three: The Day the Law Died, etc.

Which reminds me. It’s not “Curs’d”. It’s “Curse-ed”. Two syllables, people.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Farr permalink
    September 24, 2012 9:29 am

    It seems to me that virtually every piece of popular culture that addresses the subject of the city… is created by somebody who loathes or fears the city.

    You tell a screenwriter or set designer to give you a futuristic city, it’s always going to be decaying, gone to seed, and terrifying… or sterile, inhuman, and sinister. (With the possible exception of the the hutongs found at the bottom levels of future Los Angeles in Blade Runner. People there seem happy enough, despite the constant rain, although even there the scary bits are never far away.)

    Who ever wrote about the future of the city, who actually loved it? I’m sure there must be examples, but they haven’t impinged upon my little universe.

  2. September 24, 2012 8:08 pm

    I really want to see this, but it’s not showing in two-dees anywhere near me.

    • September 25, 2012 8:38 am

      I had no option but to put up with the 3D nonsense. It wasn’t especially intrusive but, speaking as a bespectacled gent, it’s not exactly comfortable wearing two pairs of glasses.

  3. Russell Garner permalink
    February 6, 2013 1:28 pm

    The Fifth Element did Mega City One better than this. Heck, even the last Dredd movie did. That said, I didn’t totally hate this one, but it was based on Robocop, not Dredd.

    • February 6, 2013 8:30 pm

      Aye, agreed. And Robocop was evidently inspired – at least partly – by Judge Dredd, so it’s like a weird feedback loop of diminishing returns. I didn’t hate it by any means, but it was frustratingly ungreat.

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