Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dredd (2012) directed by Pete Travis, 19th September 2012

‘Dredd’ is a straightforwardly pared down action moviecut from the same cloth as the 1980s work of John Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven.  The premise is that futuristic “judge, jury and executioner” Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are trapped inside a huge residential building controlled by a narcotics gang, and must fight their way to the top taking out anyone in their path along the way.  It’s a pretty thin plot, but one that serves its purpose of delivering near constant extreme violence and deadpan dialogue.

Judge Dredd occupies an interesting place in British popular culture. Uniquely among the stable of 2000AD characters he’s entered mainstream discourse: if a police federation enacts some variety of ‘zero tolerance’ policy, invariably they will be referred to as a ‘real life Judge Dredd’ (one example of many).  Even though the character is American and his stories are set in the gargantuan future US metropolis ‘Mega City One’, he feels very British.  Dredd as a character emerged from the punky aesthetic of 2000AD, a comics magazine which began publication in 1977.  The Judge Dredd comic strip is a satire of fascism, a wickedly dark imagining of what the world would be like if every goggle-eyed right winger’s fantasy world came true. It's important to understand that Judge Dredd is not a hero, he has personally nuked a city containing 500 million people, shot pro-democracy protesters and carried out an unimaginable number of summary executions in the name of a warped justice system.

Karl Urban as Judge Dredd
Travis’ film, written by Alex Garland goes relatively easy on the satire and politics that infuse the comics.  Working with a relatively small budget, they’ve gotten rid of a lot of the overtly fantastical and futuristic elements and replaced it with a modern ‘realism’.  The look of the future resembles African and South American cities, everything is bathed under dusty yellowish smog, there’s an omnipresent stifling heat and a populace seemingly on the edge.  There are some neat moments that impress upon you the brutality of the surroundings, my favourite being the subtle squeak squeak of the cleaning machine as it washes the blood off the floor after a particular brutal episode of violence.  It speaks volumes about the state of the this city that things like this seem banal and unremarkable.

Karl Urban is a great Judge Dredd, although this isn’t a role that requires a huge amount of range.  If you can scowl convincingly and talk in a Clint Eastwoody growl you’re most of the way there.  Dredd almost isn’t a character at all really, he functions more as an embodiment of a inflexible authority.  In this film Dredd has no backstory, no motivation other than the law and no emotion other than steely determination.  Further dehumanising him is his helmet, which covers most of his face and is never removed during the film.  The fact that you never see his face is important, he shouldn’t be a human being per se, he should be seen as a man who has completely surrendered his identity to authority. 

Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson
While Dredd is the protagonist here, the character development comes from Olivia Thirlby’s Judge Anderson.  She’s a failed trainee, only being considered as a potential judge because of her mutant psychic abilities.  Unlike Dredd she hasn’t completely bought into the ideology of the brutal Judge system.  She begins the film a bit nervous and unsure, but gradually toughens up under Dredd’s tutelage. Anderson is initially shocked by the brutality of the justice Dredd dispenses, especially when she’s asked to summarily execute a wounded man.   The arc the character takes is actually a bit depressing, starting out as relatively normal and slowly being desensitised into a fascist thug.  She also functions as a useful audience surrogate: Dredd can explain things to her (and us). Although Anderson appears vulnerable in comparison to Dredd (especially as for the majority of the film she has no Judge’s helmet), she demonstrates her mental strength in her psychic interrogations and when she’s placed in danger herself.   It’s a fine performance by Thirlby, who somehow never manages to be eclipsed by the huge cultural icon she’s partnered with.

Lena Headey as Ma-Ma
Rounding out the main cast is our villain, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey).  She’s a sadistic, torturing gang leader who’s wiped out all her competitors and taken control of the Peach Tree residential block.  She’s confident, in control and considering her introduction involves her ordering men skinned and thrown off buildings, slightly sympathetic.  We’re shown in brief flashback her vicious rise from an exploited prostitute to ganglord.  Despite this slight glimmer of humanity, she is absolutely a villain and her casual sadism makes Dredd’s slaughter seem almost clinical and reasonable in comparison.   Maybe she is a little one-note, but at least it's a good note. 

Ma-Ma has risen to the top of her game because she controls the only production facility of a new narcotic that’s sweeping Mega City One: SLO-MO.   This drug slows down time to 1% of its normal speed, which results in fabulously beautiful slow motion shots of users on the drug.  Generally this is a drab and washed out looking film, but when we shift to a SLO-MO perspective colours become over-saturated, and water or broken glass floats and sparkles gently through the air.  It all looks very beautiful, especially in 3D.  There are a number of extremely violent scenes that take place from the viewpoint of someone on this drug, and even bullets blowing through people or bodies exploding take on a mesmeric, graceful quality.  It’s interesting that this drug doesn’t appear to have any side effects, the only reason it seems to be illegal is because the beauty it creates throws the harsh reality of life in this dystopia into sharp focus.  

‘Dredd’ is a difficult film to analyse because I think someone who’s familiar with the satirical nature of the comics will ‘get it’, and someone coming in blind will see an unapologetic fascist slaughtering his way through masses of people.   Both the comic and the film have their cake and eat it to some to degree.  While intentionally satirical, the character of Judge Dredd is undoubtedly ‘cool’, and the power he wields is attractive.  But  Travis and Garland have played it a bit too safe, while we see Dredd dispensing justice, it’s a justice that seems just, his morality isn't called into question.  

For my money, the character of Dredd is at his most compelling when he’s committing horrific acts in the name of preserving the law.  In this film it’s easy enough to cheer him on without any sense of irony, and that’s a big problem.  We need at least one scene where we’re scared by what this character represents.  There is an excellent opportunity for this when Dredd and Anderson are being held at gunpoint by two young teenagers.  Dredd tells them that threatening a Judge is punishable by death or time in the ‘juve-cubes’.  The teenagers eventually open fire, but Dredd switches his gun to ‘stun’ mode, merely knocking them out.  This seems a bit cowardly, Dredd should have killed those children and the audience should have rightly been disgusted by it.

I don’t think it’s enough that those ‘in the know’ can recognise that the overall thrust of the film is satirising fascist ideology.  The film can easily be read as a ringing endorsement of fascism, with Dredd as a figure to be respected and emulated.  I get that this is a film made under tight budgetary constraints, a film which has to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but even so it seems irresponsible to portray an heavily armed totalitarian police force as both attractive and effective.

If there ever was a time to properly satirise a vicious and corrupt police force, then it’s now.  Look at the London Metropolitan Police, whose modus operandi when they murder people is to smear the name of the deceased as quickly as possible with a campaign of outright lies and misinformation.  This is prime material for satire and releasing what is essentially a ‘straight’ Judge Dredd movie seems like a huge missed opportunity.

So I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.  On one hand Dredd is a great action film - a refreshing throwback to the ultraviolent, grimy films of the 80s like ‘Robocop’ or ‘Escape from New York’.  On the other hand, the film dials the satire way, way down and as a result Dredd’s methods don’t seem so extreme after all.  If you take a satirical hyper authoritarian 'hero' policeman and remove the satire what's left?  Sitting in a cinema watching an audience taking vicarious thrills in fascism is quite a disturbing experience.    What’s more disturbing is that it thrilled me too.

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