The appearance of another Judge Dredd film has caused me to re-activate my status as Dredd fanboy. I first encountered Judge Dredd when I was about 10 in a Best of 2000AD comic, and, as far as introductions go, I lucked out. It was the story introducing Judge Death, one of the particularly memorable (and one of the few returning) baddies. This story also introduced Judge Anderson of the Psi division. I had never been much of a comics reader and I was quite shocked -- and fascinated -- by how dark and violent it was: I had no idea comics could be like that. But that wasn't what kept me coming back.
The world that Dredd inhabited seemed frighteningly plausible (and, perhaps, does again). Humanity crammed into super-cities, much of the planet uninhabitable, unemployment the norm. Laura Norder has trumped all other political considerations leading to the creation of the Judges: a "super police" who both apprehend the criminal and sentence them on the spot, dispensing with the red-tape of trials, lawyers and juries. And the high-density idle humanity keep them very busy. The people of Megacity One as usually seen in colourful, "future punk" clothing (with the notable exception of Max Normal "the pin-stripe freak") and consume their time on earth playing Pin Boing, flying (often unsuccessfully) in bat suits, high-altitude graffiti, growing fantastically fat, or indulging in bloody inter-neighbourhood "block wars".
The necessity of extreme measures to maintain order often make Dredd a morally non-trivial character. Dredd is a clone of the founding Judge, Fargo, and a legend even among the Judges; he is ethically (almost) one-dimensional, utterly devoted to the maintenance of The Law. This means he can function as both anti-hero and hero. The characteristics that make him a superlative Judge do not make him a nice person. Whilst sometimes the plots are of Earth-shattering significance, often they're not. One of my favourites involves Dredd chasing a litterer.
And his adventures are often delivered with straight-faced black humour.
Fortunately, I only found out about the new movie quite recently, because I've found the subsequent wait interminable. A good friend got tickets to the Auckland preview, which was greatly enhanced by finding the star, Karl Urban, tearing the tickets at the door! But how did I find the film?
The cast was generally good and the leads were great. Visually, it was bland and grimey. The streets were relatively empty and the vehicles slightly old fashioned; with perhaps a late 80s theme to the movie in general. The exceptions are the Judges and their equipment, which is slightly futuristic. Dredd's Lawmaster looked good. The cityscape is modern but rundown, with a giant skyscraper ("Block") on every city block. Most of the film occurs inside one of these Blocks, and it looks like a very tall version of the impoverished housing developments popular in British crime drama. I think the intention was to depict a civilisation halted by catastrophe, and to create some "immediacy" by having it look mundane, but for me it just looked half-assed, like the main characters were wearing costumes, but no one else was. Certainly the Block was not convincing as a place where one could lead his whole life.
We were promised graphic violence and it was provided in buckets, with gruesome deaths, unpleasant images and 3D sprays of cgi blood. The little ritual from the comic where Dredd announces the type of bullet before firing was fortunately preserved (but no ricochet -- my favourite). Anderson uses her psi powers to good effect, and despite her inevitable capture doesn't need rescuing. Dredd's script is kept suitably brief, almost like the comic. Occasionally, just occasionally, there's a slight delay, as if there is thought behind the mask; its entirely enough. The film has the plot of a platform game, the goal being to get from the bottom to the top, but it's a reasonably entertaining trip. The mid-film surprise is not a plot twist, but a demonstration of the bad guys' (and film makers') cavalier attitude to humanity. It doesn't matter: it's still shocking.
The film Dredd gets the characters right but, like the previous Stallone version, gets the backdrop wrong. The lunacy of life lead under extreme conditions is forgotten, instead we get a vertical slum. Judge Dredd is a double act, the Judge is one half, the City the other. Neither film adaptation has properly understood that. I was left disappointed by the wafer thinness of plot, but only later realised that Dredd is an anomalous action movie: it's actually character driven. Dredd works because the relationship between Dredd and Anderson works, because Anderson's conviction in her own worth grows sufficiently slowly that it actually is a process. True to the comic, there are no stirring speeches, just trial by fire.
I enjoyed the movie, but while watching the credits I couldn't imagine watching it again. Twenty four hours later, I'm keen to revisit it, to see it what I think is there really is.