by Indy Datta
In 1995, the first movie outing for taciturn dystopian-future law enforcer Judge Joseph Dredd – a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Danny Cannon – was released to scathing reviews. Although comic book adaptations were, even then, big box office (Joel Schumacher’s grating, garish Batman Forever, released in the same year, was as big a hit as the two Tim Burton movies that preceded it), the sales pitch for Cannon’s film was all about Sylvester Stallone, still at that time one of the most bankable international movie stars. To the chagrin of the hardcore fans, the 1995 version of putting the money on screen meant putting all of Stallone’s face on the screen, even though Dredd’s face had in the pages of 2000 AD, jutting chin apart, been kept from view beneath his helmet since his first appearance in 1977. In the name of commerciality, the film traduced the source material in numerous other ways, big and small – from giving Dredd a love interest to, unforgivably, retaining the services of Rob Schneider as a comedy sidekick. Despite all the cynical pandering, Judge Dredd bombed. Fast forward to 2012, a world where comic book movies are the mainstream, with the latest incarnation of Batman not only hoovering up ridiculous amounts of cash, but demanding to be taken seriously. The makers of Dredd looked like they were doing everything right – the helmet would stay on, hiding star Karl Urban’s face throughout; Dredd’s creator John Wagner would be part of a creative dream team including Danny Boyle’s go-to screenwriter Alex Garland; the violence wouldn’t be watered down to garner a kid-friendly rating; Rob Schneider (or his 2012 equivalent, Rob Schneider) would remain uncontacted. Despite all this, Dredd bombed.
Obviously – as the producers of Thunderbirds or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will tell you from bitter experience – cultish British properties like Judge Dredd will always find it hard to compete in the international mainstream market with the heavily presold likes of the Batman franchise or Disney’s Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, which benefitted on its way to a billion-dollar-plus gross from, effectively, having been trailed in several previous films as the payoff to each one of those films. Unlike Thunderbirds or Hitchhikers, Dredd was a modestly budgeted production, but the weak pulling power of the brand and the stars, some horrible reviews (particularly in the US), and yes, some of those admirable creative decisions (the R rating, the chin) probably all contributed to the film’s failure to turn a profit even on its austerity-level budget.
So, while it would be simplistic to blame the critics for the film’s commercial failure, some of the reviews still make me grind my teeth. As an exercise in truly epic point-missing, it’s hard to beat Kyle Smith’s review in the New York Post, in which he complains at length that the justice dealt by the Judges of Megacity One is arbitrary, brutal and possibly even fascist. Like, duh.
Of course, Smith’s review, and others like it, encapsulate another reason for the film’s failure – the fact that Dredd is not, on paper or on film, a hero, or a conventional anti-hero; instead you’re free to interpret his actions and his character for yourself in the context of a world that mirrors (albeit sketchily and inconsistently in the way of weekly comics, where many authors leave the mark of their own interpretation over the years, and where deep background exposition is rare) the contradictions and complexity of the real world in a way attempted by few other comic books, and certainly very few, if any, comic book films. Dredd is the violent representative of a repressive and arbitrary regime; he is also part of society’s last line of defence against utter lawlessness (or is he? does the repression breed the lawlessness?). He is committed to enforcing the brutal letter of the law; but willing to stand in extremis for justice when he knows the law is wrong. But the key thing is, he’s implicated (compare to the politically incoherent The Dark Knight Rises, which continues to garner praise for its incoherence, which its protagonist is allowed to simply float above, never made to pick a side). But he’s also a comic book badass, and the comics and this film are unembarrassed by that. And if you cheer for him, does that implicate you?
That’s a lot to unpack, and Dredd, being a brutally streamlined action ride coincidentally very similar in stripped down plot outline to this year’s excellent martial arts flick The Raid (the protagonists fight their way up a tall building to take down a bad guy, the end), jettisons the explicitly satirical notes that, in the comics, have helped to unpack it. There are fans of the comic book Dredd who legitimately lament that – feeling that the film should have been more Paul Verhoeven and less John Carpenter. But different artists and writers have always had different takes on comic book properties, and the approach taken here (playing it straight and using Olivia Thirlby’s psychic rookie Judge Anderson as a goad to Dredd’s conscience) feels, to me, both fruitful and taken in good faith. None of this is to say that there is no humour in Dredd, but the humour is brusque and black (one character’s unexpected demise is almost as bleakly funny as the fate of Scatman Crothers in The Shining).
Dredd’s trump card is its visuals – cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s images come in three distinct modes –a quasi-monochrome look, often with the Judges in their fascist-chic uniforms superimposed in heroic postures on the background of intersecting diagonals created by the future-brutalist architecture of the ironically named Peach Trees megablock, like living agitprop tableaux; the red and gold of fire, blood and destruction that is the only vivid colour; and the sensory overload of the shots from the point of view of characters who have taken the drug SloMo (the film’s Mcguffin) –shot in startlingly vivid saturated colours and extreme slow motion, rendered even more hyperreal by 3D. The SloMo look and the cartoonishly exaggerated violence both embody a kind of aesthetic resistance to the rectilinear world of the Judges and the establishment, and often coincide in a deliciously reprehensible synergy of flesh exploding, gouts of ridiculously red blood spurting, empty bullet casings flying, all slowed down so you can feel every microsecond. Could someone buy me a 3D TV for Christmas, please?
My top ten of the year follows, UK general releases only. I don’t see everything, so there might well be a whole ten films out there that I would like more.
2. The Kid With a Bike
3. This is Not a Film
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. The Turin Horse
8. The Giants
9. Goodbye First Love
10. The Master