Dredd (2012, dir. Peter Travis)
Mega-City One is an urban sprawl filled with crime and poverty. Enforcing the rule of law in this crumbling post-apocalyptic landscape as the Judges, a natural combination of judge-jury-executioner. The most famous of these brutal lawmen is Judge Dredd, an enigmatic figure who is more of a justice-dispensing machine than a human being. He’s charged with testing rookie Judge Anderson on what ends up being one of his toughest days. The call comes from the large tenement Peach Trees that there has been a triple homicide. The Judges quickly learn these murders are tied to a threat is plaguing all of Mega-City One.
Most movie-savvy people are aware of Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 trash fire of a film, Judge Dredd. His adaptation of the popular UK comic book made a ton of errors that betrayed the spirit of the source material. He rarely wore his Judge’s helmet after the opening action sequence, and the script gave a lot of backstory to the Judge. These story elements are pretty antithetical to the nature of the comic book. The film ended up highlighting the more absurd elements and has become a perennial entry of the Worst Films of All Time lists. So, this reboot had a tremendously bad reputation to overcome.
Dredd manages to stay very faithful to the source material, even the more fantastic parts while delivering a character-centered story. Apparently inspired by The Raid, Dredd focuses its action within the walls of Peach Trees, a housing complex that provides plenty of set pieces and a palpable tension. When you have nowhere to run from the forces out to kill you, it will inevitably bring out more ferocious elements in humans. With a character like Judge Dredd, he is absolutely in his environment with this scenario. To say Dredd is a violent film is an understatement. This is a gory, visceral, kill fest. Yet, it tells a compelling story, particularly through Judge Anderson.
In the same way, Max in the Mad Max films is merely a cipher through which to tell a story, writer Alex Garland fashions Dredd into the same type of protagonist. It is entirely unimportant what Dredd was like as a child or the what the moment was that he forfeited his humanity to become an arbiter of justice. Instead, he is the vessel that helps tell the story of Judge Anderson’s loss of innocence. Actor Karl Urban takes on a role many actors would shirk at, the majority of his face covered with the entire film. But Urban, a fan of the comic, expressed that he understood why keeping Dredd’s identity obscured was essential to the character. Olivia Thirlby as Anderson first appears as your typical by the book, nervous rookie but by the end of the film, she is able to hold onto her humanity while acknowledging the violence that people can be pushed towards. The exact route her character will take within the fiction of the film is left for us to wonder about.
Lena Headey plays the movie’s central antagonist, Mama. I was absolutely thrilled with the choices she made in playing this crime boss villain. The minute she spoke I knew I was going to love her performance because she chose to be quiet in the way she spoke. This wasn’t the godawful Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Rising sort of calm quiet then SHOUTING performance. We learned a lot about Mama through how she communicated. In the environment where she grew up, words carried little currency. For people in places like Peach Trees, a threat is worth nothing if there isn’t a physical punishment behind it. Mama makes sure to inflict brutal horrors on people who cross her. Even in the final showdown between Dredd and Mama we have her maintaining a very calm, quiet hate in her voice.
Dredd succeeds and undoing and helping the audience forget everything about the 90s attempt to adapt the property. It is definitely elevated above your average comic book fare as well. It has tons of social commentary cleverly embedded in amongst the brutal violence. It is definitely one of those futures that, while extreme and different than our modern day, still feels unsettlingly familiar and far too close to our lifetimes.