Dreddfully Violent, Wonderfully Fun

by Arthur B

2012's Dredd might at last have some form of followup coming via Netflix.
After an apocalyptic war, humanity clusters together in Mega-Cities, extremely high-density settlements which, whilst nightmarishly crowded, authoritarian and polluted, still represent a better shot at life than trying to eke out an existence in the irradiated Cursed Earth. Mega-City One is, in principle, ruled by the steel grip of the Judges - though in actuality they are hopelessly outnumbered, with only 6% of crime reports getting investigated. The end result is a world where crime can thrive so long as it stays under the radar, but gets ruthlessly rooted out once it slips from the 94% to the 6% category.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is a veteran; his years of experience could land him among the leadership of the Justice Department if he fancied a desk job, but the patrol beat is where is heart lies, and he’s the best at it. That’s why the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) has called him in for a special task. Rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) has struggled her way through the Academy, and has ended up 3% short of a pass mark. Any other candidate would have been released under such circumstances - but Anderson’s struggles may relate to the very skills which make her of vital use to the Justice Department. You see, Anderson is a powerful telepath, whose mind-reading powers may be a boon to the department even as they give her a shade more empathy than your typical Judge.

The Chief wants Dredd to take Anderson out on an assessment patrol; if Anderson can convince Dredd, a legendary hardass, to give her a pass then she’s in, if Dredd still has reservations she’s out. Giving Anderson the choice of which crime report to follow up on, Dredd accompanies her to an investigation of a triple homicide at Peach Trees - a 200 floor residential slum-block. Little do they know it, but the shadowy power in control of Peach Trees is Ma-Ma (Lena Headley), a ruthless gang leader whose crew is the main source of slo-mo, a narcotic which creates the sensation that time is passing at a greatly decelerated rate. (It’s basically like cake in that respect.) Busting a slo-mo den, among those arrested by Dredd and Anderson is Kay (Wood Harris); Anderson’s telepathy tells her that he’s one of those responsible for the homicides (a slaying of rival dealers), and the Judges decide to take him back to HQ for enhanced interrogation.

Ma-Ma, however, cannot allow Kay’s knowledge to fall into the hands of the Judges - so she has her captive hacker take over control of Peach Trees’ security systems and put them on a war footing, sealing the building from the outside world. Ordering her gang to kill the Judges, Anderson and Dredd find themselves hunted by an entire city block of perps desperate to please (or, more accurately, desperate not to displease) Ma-Ma. For Anderson it’s going to be a baptism in fire… for Dredd, it’s yet another drug bust.

Dredd’s main task was to drag itself out from under the shadow of the Stallone-helmed Judge Dredd movie from 1995, which more or less abandoned both the character’s distinctive mix of stoicism and draconian attitudes, and the wry, low-key sense of humour that underpinned most of the comic stories. The latter is particularly unfortunate, since that humour constitutes precisely the sort of winks to the audience needed to keep it in a satirical space.

Karl Urban’s performance as Dredd here almost completely exorcises Stallone’s performance, and sets the bar against which all subsequent performances as the character will be judged. Not only does he convey the character’s salient features perfectly, but he even gets the little things right - he keeps the helmet on, he doesn’t get emotive, he notes things that morally outrage him with curt disapproval rather than yelling or crying.

This, of course, gives him severe challenges as the main character of a movie, which is why it makes sense to pair him up with a strong co-protagonist and a distinctive villain. Making the movie Judge Anderson’s origin story is a good call here - she’s a distinctive and popular character from the comic (in fact, she’s had her own series from 1988), and her psychic powers allow her to have an alternate approach to crimefighting to Dredd’s. The movie flags this early on when Dredd tells her that if she loses her primary weapon, he’ll fail her on the assessment; it doesn’t take a storytelling expert to guess that a) there’ll be a point in the story where she loses her gun and b) Dredd will pass her anyway because he comes to respect that her primary weapon is her mind, but the way it all pans out is still fun to watch. Thirlby does a fine job with the character, and her plot arc is remarkably well-handled; there’s no romance angle at all, because a woman doesn’t need a romance angle to have an interesting story told about her, and there’s some nicely subtle character development points. (For instance, she doesn’t realise that Dredd isn’t going to hold her losing her gun against her - which means that she isn’t mindreading him, and in turn means she respects him enough to give him his mental privacy.)

As far as Ma-Ma as an adversary goes, the whole “ex-prostitute” thing feels slightly needless (what, there’s no entry point for women into criminality other than prostitution?), and the whole “she bit a gang leader’s dick off and took over his turf” angle feels absurdly edgelordy. That said, it’s been pointed out to me that you get little to no evidence that this is actually true - it could just be a myth she spreads to consolidate the grip of fear she holds her gang in.

That brings me to the best part of Ma-Ma’s characterisation, which is the way her nature is vividly, uncomfortably depicted in the cruelty she is willing to subject her minions and the inhabitants of “her” territory to. In the former case we get a deep look into how she physically bullies and torments the hacker she uses to take control of the Peach Trees block (and has done so in the past - his cybernetic eyes were not something he chose to have implanted and the surgery did not use anaesthetic), and the way the rest of her underlings act around her suggests that he’s hardly alone - that her entire operation is based on a pyramid of abuse and terror, with her as the most abusive and terrifying figure in it. Headley’s performance here is astonishing to the extent she is able to combine sheer malevolence with emotional believability.

As far as her attitude to the block itself goes, there’s few scenes more moving than when she sets up some high-powered assault weapon and simply blows the hell out of an entire side of one level - establishing in one brutal move that she is absolutely willing to go that far to get what she wants. The contrast to Dredd himself is interesting: on the one hand, once the gang has gone far enough and broken enough lines he ceases to have any qualms about using incendiary rounds in his Lawgiver to toast a group of enemies on a balcony - for context, Lawgiver incendiary rounds are less like pistol ammunition and more like white phosphorus artillery shells in their effect. On the other hand, he does seem to have some sympathetic feeling for innocent bystanders, and he isn’t overtly cruel in his testing of Anderson - he’s sceptical about her appropriateness for the job and he’s willing to put her on the spot, but you get the impression he’s doing so to give her the opportunity to sink or swim.

What’s really refreshing about Dredd is that it’s a rare example of a sci-fi action movie which bothers to dot its eyes and cross its “t”s. There are more or less no plot holes you can point to. For much of the movie I was wondering “How does Ma-Ma even intend to get away with this in the long term”, and delightfully in her final confrontation with Dredd she reveals she didn’t plan to get away alive at all: she knew that lethal force in the form of the Judges or rival gangs would come her way one day, she accepted it as the nature of the game she was playing, and she made sure to set something up to make sure she goes out with a bang. (The fact that her plan fails due to a fairly major design flaw can be forgiven partly because it’s a reasonable enough oversight, partly because it sets up the sort of ironic/karmic justice which is the lot of most Judge Dredd villains.)

Another example is how one of the corrupt Judges hired by Ma-Ma to assassinate Anderson and Dredd approaches Anderson with the plan to pretend to be backup and shoot her when she drops her guard; naturally, Anderson’s telepathy means she isn’t fooled at all and the assassin is killed off nicely unceremoniously. (Thus, the film bothers to concede a degree of competence to Anderson in her plot arc which is rare in action movies.) There’s a plethora of other examples besides; by and large, if something in the movie seems a bit off or contradictory, there’s actually a reasonable explanation that’s coming along in a minute.

An interesting choice is just how near-future the movie feels; rather than evoking the completely futuristic Mega-City One of the comics, the movie is a bit more sparing in its futuristic touches. (The hyper-highrise blocks and Anderson’s psi powers are basically the major science fiction features here.) This helps to make the whole thing feel more relatable, since all the citizens are basically living lives much like ours except the Judges are in charge, and also makes the prospect of a sequel or Netflix series somewhat better - it wouldn’t require an outrageous budget to revive this version of Mega-City One for another go-around. I sincerely hope they do - it’d be a tragedy if this is all we get to see of Karl Urban’s Dredd, and it’d be nice to see a graduated Judge Anderson on the job too. Plus it was great to see Rakie Ayola playing the Chief Judge, so if she can make a return that’d be neat too - particularly since if they take the TV series approach working in the dysfunctional politics of Mega-City One would be a good way to fill out the running time, and the Chief Judge would be a good character to build that side of the show around.

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