Thursday, 26 November 2015

Film Review - 'Dredd'

Judge Dredd is a character with a long, and often very violent, history. The character's first comic-book appearance was in an issue of the British science-fiction anthology series, 2000 AD, back in 1977 - and, his previous film appearance Sylvester Stallone's fan-displeasing effort, released in 1995 - a film which even someone as unfamiliar with the source material as I am would have to admit failed in a number of ways. If there is any character who deserves another chance in film, it would have to be Judge Dredd. Thankfully, with 2012's Dredd, he received just that.

The film's opening narration tells us everything we need to know about this bleak world. With much of America reduced to a barren wasteland, what's left of human civilisation survives in massive walled-off cities. In these massive cities, desperate citizens struggle to survive while criminal elements constantly threaten to bring the whole system crashing down into a state of anarchy. In this bleak and violent world, the task of enforcing order rests on the shoulders of the Judges - officers who, essentially, have the power to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner. In Mega-City One, the most feared of these is Judge Dredd - a single-minded and terrifyingly efficient champion of the city's harsh take on the concept of 'justice'.

As the film opens, though, Dredd (Karl Urban) finds himself saddled with an unwanted responsibility in the form of Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a young woman who had failed in her training as a Judge, but who was being given another chance thanks to impressive psychic abilities. Anderson's abilities would, naturally, make her a significant asset, and she only failed her final trails by a few points - so, despite Dredd's obvious disapproval, he is ordered to take her out for a final assessment.

With Anderson's future as a Judge now resting in Dredd's hands, the two head out. Responding to what appears to be a fairly routine, if particularly bloody, act of gang violence, the two Judges make their way to Peach Trees (one of a variety of massive block-wide buildings which house the poorer residents of Mega-City One). There, Dredd and Anderson find themselves crossing paths with Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) - a scarred former prostitute who managed to claw her way to the top (beginning with the 'feminization' of her former pimp) and forge herself a criminal empire on the upper levels of Peach Trees.

Knowing that the Judges are likely to discover that Peach Trees is actually the production point for Slo-Mo, the newest drug to hit the streets of Mega-City One (one that significantly alters a user's perception of time), Ma-Ma moves to seize control of the massive building's security control room, triggering a lock-down that effectively seals the building off from the outside world and leaves the Judges trapped. With no way out, Dredd and Anderson are left with no other choice but to make their way up to the very top for a confrontation with Ma-Ma, herself.

It's a simple, but effective, set-up - one that will have all the pieces in place within the first half-hour, and which allows the film to get straight to the action. It is also a set-up which, unfortunately, does not leave much room for moral complexity. In this particular instance of life in Mega-City One, we're left in no doubt that the Judges are the heroes and Ma-Ma and her gang are the villains. There simply isn't room, here, for any exploration of themes of power and control that you could imagine finding in the Judges, and the role that they play in this society. We're given the context of a society that allows its law enforcement to wield considerable power, and we are told a story that takes place in that world. There may be elements of grim satire to be found in the comics, but they don't seem to have quite made it into the film.

In many ways, Dredd barely even qualifies as an actual 'character' in the traditional sense. He's a one-dimensional figure, at best - seemingly incapable of any meaningful change or growth. He seems almost entirely unable to feel any emotion beyond anger. And, he is perfectly comfortable with extreme acts of violence in his pursuit of justice. He's the worst sort of generic action hero, basically - but, this time, that seems to be the entire point. Honestly, in any other context, Judge Dredd would feel like a bizarre parody character. But, as the faceless symbol of an extremely harsh from of 'justice' in a bleak dystopian future, it's actually quite effective. And, he is literally 'faceless', too, since there is a long-standing rule against ever portraying him without his iconic helmet (a rule that the previous film broke).

This has been largely true throughout the character's long comic-book history - and, it is just as true here. The character that we are introduced to early on is really everything that fans of the comics could hope for. He is aggressive and single-minded - and, most importantly, with the exception of one teasing glimpse of the back of his head during a fairly typical 'gearing up' scene, the film is entirely committed to the idea of keeping Judge Dredd's face obscured. This, of course, leaves Karl Urban with the formidable task of bringing this character to life using only the lower half of his face. Sure, the constant growled dialogue and the exaggerated frowns might be a bit over the top, at times - but, it's actually quite impressive to see how good a job Urban does, here. Instead of the awkward caricature we could have ended up with, Urban is able to give us a figure who comes across as genuinely threatening. He is certainly much more threatening than any of the film's actual villains.

The cost of all of this, though, is that Dredd essentially remains the same blank-slate throughout the entire film. By the end, the audience wont know him any better than they did at the start. But, again, this seems to be entirely intentional. One scene early on, where Anderson uses her psychic abilities on Dredd, even seems to be set up as a deliberate tease - with Anderson suggesting that she can sense something of who Dredd really is beneath his anger, only to be interrupted before she can actually reveal anything to the audience. It felt like it was the film's clever little way of both acknowledging Dredd's essentially one-dimensional character and telling us to just accept it and move on.

The film may be called Dredd, and he may feature prominently, but it should be fairly clear by now that it isn't really his story we are watching. That honor goes to Anderson, herself - with Olivia Thirlby doing a great job of giving us the emotional character arc that we were never going to get with Dredd. She certainly counts as the more traditional 'hero' of the film, too. While Dredd is frighteningly certain of his role, Anderson seems to display some degree of uncertainty. And, while Dredd remains static and unchanging throughout the course of the film, Anderson is allowed to grow and change. Her psychic ability, which may initially seem a bit out of place in a futuristic world that seems grounded in some degree of realism, is also put to good use throughout the course of the film.

The film's villains, meanwhile, seem to exist only to justify the harsh action that needs to be taken to stop them - though, in that role, they perform admirably. Lena Headey is genuinely threatening as Ma-Ma (not quite as threatening as Dredd, himself, maybe - but, then, that's a tough act to follow). She is violent and cruel, but also clearly intelligent - and, the fact that she can get all of this across without ever actually raising her voice is very impressive. Her lieutenant Kay (Wood Harris), on the other hand, spends much of the film as a prisoner of the two judges, which limits his opportunities to be truly 'villainous'. But, he still gets his moments to shine - including a chance to engage in something of a psychic battle with Anderson which counts as one of the film's most creative and interesting sequences.

There may not be much in the way of large-scale action set-pieces, here, but the action we are given is often tense, and genuinely exciting. The inclusion of the Slo-Mo drug even gives us an in-story justification for the inclusion of some entertainingly bloody slow-motion additions to the film's action. I'll admit that I don't fully understand what the appeal of this drug is really supposed to be for its user - but, it does make things more entertaining for the audience.

In the end, Dredd an entertaining, if particularly grim and bloody, action film. It's really just a shame that the film's disappointing performance at the box office means that there isn't going to be a sequel - because, I would have liked to have seen how a follow-up film would have played out. Fans of the character can be satisfied that they have at least one good live-action adaptation of Judge Dredd, at least - so, there's that.

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