Opinion: Justice for Dredd – the film you need to watch

Dredd urban

There are things in this world that tick me off; war, poverty, greed and injustice. You know, that whole shebang. And then there are the things that seem trivial but somehow become mega important.  Things like Dredd.

Dredd was a 2012 release starring Karl Urban as the titular frowny-faced dispenser of justice and Olivia Thirlby as psychic rookie Judge Anderson. It was in 3D, it was raw, it was violent and it was utterly brilliant. And like idiots, we all ignored it.

But you can’t really blame us, can you? The marketing was awful. In the US it was practically non-existent. In the UK we got a crappy trailer emphasising both the Slo-mo and 3D aspects of the film (both elements that could put off the intended audience) whilst including next to no action. And of all things, a La Roux song played over the top. No wonder people stayed away.

Which is a crying shame because the craftsman-like way Dredd was propelled onto the screen is reminiscent of a John Carpenter or Paul Verhoven operating at their best. The violence is graphic yet stylised, its heightening achieved through characters use of Slo-mo, a drug that makes time feel like it’s passing far slower than normal. The introduction of this device during a chase scene nails the allure of the drug. A yellow curtain billows and shimmers in a manner more yellow than any yellow you’ve ever seen before. All cares and wants are gone. A moment of transcendence. An escape from reality. And when your reality is Mega City One, the need for escape is drastic.

Not merely a gimmick, the Slo-mo is used as a fine storytelling device. It’s all there in the first action scene. As the Judges explosive breach a door we get time to take in the whole scene; the painful youth of the teenage gang members, a vignette of domestic violence and, as the mayhem ensues, Anderson’s wide eyed shock at the carnage. This all add immeasurably to the layers of detail in Dredd’s world and hints at some of the underlying themes – the cyclical nature of violence and crime. It’s also an excellent example of the ‘show, don’t tell’  storytelling delivered brilliantly throughout the film.

The treatment of Dredd is a prime example. Karl Urban’s portrayal is a manful exercise in chin based acting, his helmet remaining in place throughout (as it should be). Our opening sees him pulling white strapping round his wrist and audibly tightening it. We don’t need a lengthy monologue from a minor character to explain Dredds nature; it’s conveyed to us through a visual metaphor. To put it mildly, this is not a carefree guy.

Olivia Thirlby as rookie Judge Anderson. Has the toughest character arc to sell and totally nails it.

Olivia Thirlby as rookie Judge Anderson. Has the toughest character arc to sell and totally nails it.

His stoic nature comes across through his minimal dialogue and understated reactions. Whilst Anderson is getting over her first on the spot execution of a ‘perp’ Dredd looks on, unflinching. Judging. It’s a hardness of thought that could only come from delivering countless executions himself. It hints at what Anderson could become and at what Dredd might have been. All in a look between Thirlby and the lower half of Urban’s face.

His stoicism also works as humour. The understated bluntness of Dredd becomes funny, none more so than by the end when, having been through a hell of a day, Dredd describes events to his chief as a: “Drug bust. Perps were… uncooperative”. Then there is the question of Ma Ma, finely portrayed by Lena Headey. The leader of the Ma Ma clan, Ma Ma is an exercise in pronounced resignation by Headey. The character was described to her as someone made old beyond her years by a horrific life in the Mega City.

Headey takes this to heart and gives us a fantastic turn balancing on the knife edge between gritty realism and the understanding that she is in a somewhat heightened comic universe.

Her every movement is purposeful, yet weary. The blasé way she can order the horrific deaths of rival dealers also marks her out as someone not to be trifled with. To Dredd she’s just another perp, but that assumption might cost the Judge dearly.

Ma Ma: A force to be reckoned with.

Ma Ma: A force to be reckoned with.

In the final analysis, Dredd emerges as a film with a personality that both incorporates, and goes beyond that of the eponymous Judge. It’s bold, uncompromising and restrained all at once. Yet it also isn’t lacking in humour or insight into the human condition; you just have to look harder to notice.

That it succeeds as both explosive entertainment and social commentary is quite a feat for an action movie on a shoestring (relative to the industry standard) budget.

What makes this film so special to me at the moment is my profound relief in watching a solid concept being well executed. In a filmic landscape of collapsing buildings (is that not old yet?) and fast-cutting to the rhythm of a directors ego, (audience understanding of a scene be damned) maybe what makes Dredd so fresh and engaging is it’s lack of pretension and economy of scale.

This isn’t about saving the world. It’s about surviving one day on patrol in Mega City One. To show us this experience it uses excellent lighting, an incredible score and some great DoP work. Please watch this film. If not right away, then as soon as possible. Because if we want more quality fiction with a hard edge, we really need to show the studio decision makers our appreciation.

Dredd is out on DVD and Blu-Ray and is available on Netflix. There is a concerted Facebook campaign out there to get a sequel to Dredd made. Show your support here by clicking here.

Author: Michael Youngman

Your friendly neighborhood gamer and film buff. Equally at home in the art-house or multiplex cinema. Loves all types of game but 1v1 fighting is a fave. I like a good natter every now and then so why not contact me on twitter.

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