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Judge Not, Lest Ye be Judged: Joel McIver On 2012 Film Dredd
Joel McIver , January 19th, 2023 10:29

In this month's Low Culture subscriber essay, Joel McIver argues for the elevation of the excellent but underperforming Dredd to the pantheon of cinematic godhood. Warning, perp: this contains plot spoilers.

The worst film ever made is not Judge Dredd, the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle: that title goes, as everyone knows, to Jaws 4: The Revenge, in which the titular shark spontaneously explodes at the end because the screenwriters couldn't think of a believable way to kill it. However, the deepest sense of disappointment I have ever felt about a film definitely came from Stallone's Dredd movie, in which the 2000 AD comic's disturbingly violent lawman was portrayed as a stupid, unfunny comic turn.

I definitely took it too personally, probably because I'd been a Dredd nerd since my early teens. I was 24 when the Stallone film came out in 1995, still young enough to be suckered in by the clever PR that preceded its release. I clearly remember the 'style bible' The Face running a story about the supposedly fan-faithful graffiti and other canonical set-dressing at the film shoot, and swallowing the hype unquestioningly because I was intimidated by how cool The Face was.

The Stallone film easily, effortlessly played me for a fool, and like an idiot, I shook my fist at the clouds about it for years afterwards. This is why Dredd, the 2012 film starring Karl Urban – and specifically that actor's precision-engineered portrayal of the character as an uncaring bastard – means so much to me. When I watched it for the first time and quickly realised that its intention was to depict him as a nihilistic fascist of few words, I punched the air, metaphorically speaking. I've done the same on each of the dozen or so times I've watched it since then.

Without meaning to over-labour the point about what a whining, entitled fanboy I am about this, Stallone's teeth-grindingly awful movie was 17 years in the rear-view mirror by 2012, but that didn't mean it was any less painful to think about. If anything, the thought of that depiction of Dredd being cinema's last word on the character was getting worse, year on year.

Anyone who thinks that the 'new Dredd' isn't a fantastic film can do 20 years in an iso-cube. All its ingredients are top-notch. It had a competent director in Pete Travis (Omagh, Vantage Point), a veteran screenwriter in Alex Garland (The Beach,28 Days Later), and a cast and crew of enormous skill and experience. The production companies knew what they were doing, too, with DNA Productions (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting et al) teaming up with the investors, producers and distributors IM Global and Reliance BIG Pictures.

The creative team even brought Dredd's co-creator John Wagner on board, who had written the character on 2000 AD editor Pat Mills' initial instruction, while the art came from the late Carlos Ezquerra. As Garland explained, Wagner was on hand to keep the dialogue true to the original, which gave the film both authenticity and, arguably, canonicity.

The plot is spot-on too, following our heavy-handed law-enforcer through a single day of duty, mostly set in a single location, a crime-infested tower block in Mega-City One called Peach Trees. Apparently Garland came up with its central 'A day in the life of...' idea after rejecting a more complex story involving Judge Death, Dredd's appalling undead nemesis, as it would require too much foreknowledge of the universe on the part of the audience.

He and his team stripped down the setting, too: in the 2000 AD comic, Dredd's Mega-City One environment is a vivid one, populated by a host of robots, mutants and aliens. Space and time travel are common in that version of the Dredd story, and there's a rich seam of surreal, grim humour loaded with 35 years (46 years in 2023) of in-comic reference points that only long-time readers could possibly grasp.

Trying to cram all that into a single movie was where the Stallone film screwed up so badly. On top of that, the in-comic Dredd never removes his helmet, making him a symbol of state oppression rather than a relatable human: when Sly did this, we all thought 'Oh look, it's Rocky/Rambo' and instantly stopped caring.

Karl Urban's Dredd does everything differently to Stallone's portrayal, fortunately. Urban doesn't ham it up, he doesn't have massive biceps, he doesn't deliver amusing quips: in fact he does very little apart from grimace and kill criminals. His delivery is deadpan, too, making it clear that Urban - plus Travis and Garland - know exactly what the character is about. Dredd's words don’t possess much anger, or sarcasm, or anything other than bitter weariness: the implication is that he's seen so much misery and violence that he's beyond all emotion. This is literally the whole point of the character.

This economical, almost spartan approach is reflected in the set design, essentially a grey concrete interior where everything has to happen for budgetary reasons. Like 1992's Reservoir Dogs, a reasonable equivalent in tone and budget, most of the action is confined to a couple of rooms and corridors with the barest of set dressing. This means that it's the actors' job to suspend our disbelief without any gimmicks to help them, and suspend it they capably do.

Reflecting this zero aesthetic still further, Dredd's character doesn't undergo any form of transformation: that would have been ridiculous, given his 35 relentless years as a total swine of a character in 2000 AD. His worldview never loses its terrible nihilistic edge, because for him, life doesn't offer hope or redemption.

In case this all sounds a bit too grim to be enjoyable, Dredd's rookie sidekick Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) gets to enjoy a thoroughly transformative character arc. Facing down both inner demons and external adversaries, she evolves from submissive student into full-fledged Judge candidate by the film's end, adding some much-needed emotional subtlety to Dredd's binary good-versus-evil world. This is important because the other female role, that of Lena Headey's villain Ma-Ma, is a touch undercooked: the film-makers gave her a set of bad teeth to indicate her evilness, and that's basically as far as her character goes.

On a related note, I'm not positing this as the perfect film by any means: Dredd does have a few significant flaws. One of them is the schlocky appearance of the title, which leaps onto the screen like a low-grade Steven Segal action flick from 1988. Another is the design of Dredd's bike, the famous Lawmaster, which looks a bit crap compared to the monster vehicle of the comic. Then there’s the casting of four turncoat judges who arrive to try and kill Dredd and Anderson: they overact and don't look particularly scary, bless them and their agents.

Yes, those are small details, but more seriously, there's a big set-piece in the second act in which a couple of chain-driven miniguns shoot a barrage of bullets across Peach Trees' central space, causing maximum destruction while not being particularly interesting or necessary. I understand why Travis and Garland included the scene: in the printed panels of 2000 AD, such all-out extravagance and ensuing carnage is common. However, having successfully established that this film is about Dredd stalking villains one by one through darkened corridors, making him a genuinely threatening silent assassin, the huge shoot-out undoes a lot of essential tension-building. Without it, we could have had an excellent survival-horror movie, ramping up the noir and expressionist elements that Travis already includes to make a properly creepy haunted-house (haunted-tower-block?) film.

My final whinge is about the plot, and this one still bothers me to this day. In the final scene, Dredd chucks Ma-Ma off a balcony to her death, but before she goes over the edge, he forces her to inhale a drug, Slo-Mo, which gives the user the sensation that time is passing at a fraction of its normal speed. In other words, he wants her to experience the fall, and the moment when she goes splat, as fully as possible.

'What a callous, evil thing to do. What a terrifying, unexpected final twist!' you remark. 'This is such a great illustration of Dredd's essential cruel inhumanity and willingness to bend the law, as well as an interesting alternate use of Slo-Mo, itself a Hitchcockian MacGuffin,' you add smugly, reaching for the port.

Actually no, you don't say that, because whoever wrote the script decided to have exactly the same thing happen to some minor villains at the start of the film. They're also forced to inhale Slo-Mo before they get thrown off the same balcony. Thus the film-makers blow their wad, so to speak, without really needing to do so. Talk about a pointless waste of a cool plot device. If we'd only seen the 'death in slow motion' thing at the end, when Ma-Ma herself experiences it, it would have been new, shocking and thought-provoking, instead of 'Oh, they're doing that again.'

This complaint is doubly relevant because it leads neatly into a consideration of the behind-the-scenes difficulties during the production. For those interested, you can read in several places that Travis and Garland were at odds at certain points during the making of Dredd, but you won't find any specific details because a) the problems probably weren't that serious, and b) non-disclosure agreements are popular in film world.

I can spot these signs of internal dissent a mile off, having come across them as an editor a hundred times in various capacities. When something doesn't flow logically in a given text, or it feels as if a compromise has been reached that nobody likes, it's usually because of a too-many-cooks scenario.

I requested interviews with both film-makers for this article: Garland's PR declined politely, citing lack of time on his part, and Travis didn't reply to my email. I was expecting nothing else, mind: who wants to go back a decade and revisit old disagreements? But I guarantee you that the stupid waste of the Slo-Mo/balcony device early in the film was down to some disagreement or other, although not necessarily between Travis and Garland, of course (m'lud).

Despite these points, the good things about Dredd far outweigh the bad, otherwise I wouldn't have chosen it as the subject of a Low Culture essay. I haven't yet mentioned the music by Paul Leonard-Morgan, an astounding suite of ambient textures based on slowed-down melodies - thus tying in with the SloMo concept. As for the visuals, there is a series of beautiful scenes in extreme slow motion, shot with high speed cameras by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, focusing on sprayed blood droplets, clouds of glittering exhaled smoke, exploding body parts and other grisly phenomena. Making horrible things look gorgeous is quite a task, but Mantle and his team did an admirable job of it here.

To sum up, what we have here is a nuanced piece of work that serves Judge Dredd's difficult-to-please fans well, as I know from experience, while pulling off a spectacular visual and aural experience - especially in the 3D version. It's sufficiently brutal for the nerds and compelling enough for everyone else, and what's more, they did it on a budget of 'just under $30 million' as Urban told Den Of Geek in 2016.

While you can assume that a decent proportion of that went to him and Headey, both hot properties in 2012 after the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and Game Of Thrones' first season respectively, the rest of it seems to have been used efficiently, given Dredd's sleek look and effects.

With all that understood, the movie was a relative failure at the box office, 'relative' being the operative word as its box office was a solid $41 million. Urban has referred to American sales of 750,000 DVDs in a single week, which I can't confirm but which sounds pretty high to me, and also to a lack of marketing, also tricky to confirm without speaking to someone in that department at Lionsgate. Even if someone trustworthy was willing and able to share numbers, what does marketing spend really mean a decade later, when DVDs are virtually history and the pandemic has taken a big bite out of the cinema industry?

Dredd's underperformance was undeserved. The film's quality is such that it easily stands aside broadly similar genre movies that did better numbers. Contemporary examples include Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), The Raid (2011) and Tron: Legacy (2010) among them, which recouped three, eight and two times their budget respectively but which few critics would, or actually did, regard as classics.

Certainly, Dredd matches recent comic adaptations such as Watchmen (2009) and V For Vendetta (2005) with ease, and not simply because of the common ground it shares with their originator Alan Moore, who also worked on 2000AD. Darker, more innovative and much less eager to please than the biggest commercial comic adaptations from Marvel and DC, it's a serious, high-quality David aiming Lawgiver hotshots at those twin Goliaths of boring convention.

The biggest point here is that even if Dredd's performance was unspectacular, it established a commercial precedent for the character. Fan forums have been calling for a sequel and/or spinoff TV series for years, and I think the environment for it is finally here. Look at the success of low- to mid-budget productions from recent years from (say) Jordan Peele and Ari Aster: the thought of the Judge Dredd universe handled by the makers of Nope and Hereditary is mind-blowing.

Indie film producers - please make it happen. Someone has to: why not you?