Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, June 17, 2013


It's easy to forget the impact that "Dirty Harry" had, as well as how much it fit into many people's concerns about criminals, cops, and the law. While it may seem a bit of a caricature now, the themes of violent criminals getting set free due to technicalities caused by rulings concerned with civil rights was very real in the minds of the public. That concern was given a face when Harry Callahan was introduced. His unstoppable pursuit of criminals was constantly hindered by his bosses fear of getting sued or having prosecution fall apart due to the criminal's rights not being honored to the letter of the law. At the time, the expectation was that we would soon have a new generation full of unstoppable psychopaths, a natural crime wave that was sure to take over every city. In hindsight, that crime wave didn't happen but the concerns have remained, only taking different form. The street punks we were worried about are no longer the main concern, but terrorists are. And so, "Dirty Harry" became "Jack Bauer." But, before that happened, we had many different cinematic cops modeled after Harry.

Judge Dredd, however was a little different, in that it looked at what the future would look like if Dirty Harry's logic was taken to the logical extreme. In 1977, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (created a future where crime was everywhere. Rather than be stopped by civil rights concerns, the powers that be decided that cops would be "Judges" with the power of judge, and executioner on the spot. The comic book character "Judge Dredd" was the future of Dirty Harry. Judge Dredd dispensed justice (and still does) in Mega-City One (New York City, if urban sprawl was allowed to spread it from Boston to Washington DC)
Unlike Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd is a faceless figure allowing him to symbolize justice without getting mired down in personal issues. Since his introduction, the character has spread throughout popular culture, becoming recognizable all over the world, as Dredd spread throughout popular culture to people who knew nothing of his comic book history, via surprising sources such as the band Anthrax, whose song "I Am The Law" helped Judge Dredd infiltrate consciousness everywhere via denim jackets and posters.

For better or worse, there was also an adaptation that made its way to film, via Danny Cannon, and starring Sylvester Stallone, who didn't really get the faceless nature of the character. While it used elements from the Judge Dredd universe it couldn't have been further from the spirit of Judge Dredd. It also largely failed to attract anyone's interest, becoming an infamous failure both critically and commercially. 

Luckily, the character of Judge Dredd is too iconic to be ruined by such treatment. He continued in the comic books, and finally made his way to film in a treatment that gets him, with Pete Travis' 2012 film, "Dredd" Made with half the budget of Cannon's failure, it was clearly more familiar with the source material. From the start, we see that Mega City One is a gritty future where a Judge has plenty to keep him busy on any given day. The opening shows us Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) in action, as he chases minor criminals who upgrade themselves to homicide and they get brutally sentenced on the spot.

Judge Dredd is assigned to evaluate a prospect for a new Judge, Cassandra Anderson, (Olivia Thirlby) a mutant and a powerful psychic. She's told the criteria for her evaluation and they take off into the streets. They respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees a 200 story slum compound, which is ruled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a former prostitute who became a powerful drug lord. She's the manufacturer and distributor of the drug "Slo-Mo" which as the name suggests, changes the users perception of real time, to seem like slow motion. The homicide that Dredd and Anderson respond to is Ma-Ma's handiwork. She gave the offenders a dose of Slo-Mo before flaying them and then throwing them from the top story into the street as an example. 

They enter Peach Trees and thanks to Anderson's psychic ability, they quickly find Kay, (Wood Harris,) one of the men who did the killing and take him into custody, intending to bring him in for interrogation, since Anderson's psychic gift is not proof. Ma-Ma, however can't afford to have Kay give up what he knows about her operation and manages to lock down the building, commanding everyone in it to take down the Judges. The wisdom of this decision comes into question as Dredd and Anderson must know shoot their way up to Ma-Ma herself in order to leave the building. 

While "Dredd" is not a huge budget film, it's visually very impressive. While I saw it in 2D it's easy to tell that it was shot for 3D, largely due to the Slo-Mo sequences, and falls from great heights. None of this takes anything away from the film, and makes the viewer sit with the violence a little longer than they might like, even drawing attention to the visual beauty of the actions. Having a predictable plot doesn't hurt it either, as this is a very old kind of story. The novelty here, is what constitutes "normal" for a Judge in this future. While Dirty Harry and his descendants in present day are seen as "loose cannon cops," in  Mega City One, Harry's inheritor, Judge Dredd is the standard. The predicted crime wave has happened and flourished, and at this point it's hard to argue with the necessity of brutal justice. 

However, as with any cop story the biggest argument against Judges comes from within their ranks. We know Dredd follows the law, but inevitably, Judge's powers end up in the hands of the morally challenged. In the future, they haven't managed to eliminate police corruption and this raises big questions about the whole system. Using trainee Anderson as our entry point we are also able to look at the possibility that "justice" can have different interpretations, a fact which Judge Dredd himself remarks on by allowing an act of mercy to pass, seemingly accepting Anderson's argument that one particular criminal is really a victim. Of course in this story, we have the benefit of Anderson's ability to read minds and Judge Dredd's moral code. That fact points out that there are many other possible stories that end less justly without those factors. Where authority exists, it will be abused, and it happens all around our central characters, but luckily not through them.

Karl Urban's portrayal of Judge Dredd is pitch perfect. He never takes off the helmet, and gives a great restrained performance. His Judge Dredd is a man who has become his job. We don't hear any of his personal details from him. He speaks in a gruff voice, without overdoing it, recalling Eastwood's Dirty Harry, and Christian Bale's Batman, (although it plays naturally here, not as unintentionally comical as hearing Batman growling.) This version of Dredd will kill without hesitation, but  we see him offer terms, offerring a criminal life in prison as an incentive to surrender. The criminal mistakes this for uncertainty and then realizes too late that it was only a courtesy.

The only questions he asks are for the benefit of Anderson. Olivia Thirlby's Anderson also comes through very well. While she's clearly in the story to help us see Dredd for the first time, she reacts well to the balance of duty and conscience. She has a scene where the law requires her to execute a man, and we see her strain, but ultimately complies, reinforcing the fact that in this future, execution is a very real part of the law and being a Judge. She still has the ability to weigh a moral dilemma though, as we see when she decides at a later point to be merciful to a man who is more a victim. Telepathy helps with that.  Lena Heady is wonderful as the merciless Ma-Ma, a character created for the film, that feels as if she's always existed in this universe. She's as uncompromising as Judge Dredd, coming from the other side of the law.

I would imagine that Director Pete Travis has some affection for the comic book character, as he went to great lengths to create a film that's true to Dredd in spirit. This is an instance, I think, where the film version is created to highlight the character and is served very well by creating a new story for film rather than blindly adapting a story line (Watchmen.) All the elements are put into place here, and we understand the bleakness of this universe and its inhabitants. It would be a wonderful first installment of a series. Unfortunately, there's some question as to that happening since it didn't do as well at the box office as desired. Hopefully, DVD and On Demand sales can make a difference as I'd love to see more of these characters.

"Dredd" comes through as a great action movie that's true to it's source. It prompts the same questions that "Dirty Harry" did, only a little further down the road. It doesn't pretend to answer these questions, as it isn't philosophy or policy, but a story which uses these questions to entertain us. Certainly there are good questions in here to consider, just the same as when we hear any instance of abuse of authority in the news. While we don't have any predictions of an oncoming criminal generation, we'll always have some oncoming crisis to justify increased security powers, and that will always be at odds with the rights of the individual. I'm not sure that there will ever be an easy answer to this dilemma, but it calls to mind Benjamin Franklin's quote,  
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Apparently, we've been struggling with this idea a long time, but it has shifted and evolved. I only hope that we decide on retaining a little liberty as I doubt a complete lack of it, will make anyone feel safe. Personally, I wouldn't bet that any real Judges would be as trustworthy as Judge Dredd.


le0pard13 said...

One of my faves from 2012, this and THE RAID: REDEMPTION (which shares similar DNA). Fine look at this, Brent.

Brent Allard said...

Thanks! It was really solid! I was very apprehensive, remembering the Stallone fiasco so well, but it delivered so well. They finally did Justice to Jedge Dredd. I'd heard that "The Raid: Redemption" has a lot of similarities. I'm hoping to catch it soon.

Anonymous said...

THis was one of my faves from 2012. In particular i liked that the main female character wasn't a 2 dimensional love interest

Brent Allard said...

@dirtywithclass Great point. They avoided that route entirely, making Thirlby simply a cop trying to prove herself. They also avoided the damsel in distress route, having her get herself out of trouble and saving Dredd. Ma-Ma was quite a formidable female character as well, without the typical female treatment.

Anonymous said...

Good review Brent. Plenty of style and action, but I wanted a little something more with this. I didn't quite get it all, but I at least had some fun for the most part.

Brent Allard said...

Thanks, Dan! I can see why you'd feel that way. In some respects Dredd is more a symbol than a character, but as you mention it did deliver the action.