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What We’re Watching: DREDD

So I watched DREDD again last night, having seen it in the cinema originally (in 3D). I’m probably biased, as I read loads of 2000AD in my youth (and am enjoying picking up the graphic novels now, although I haven’t read the weekly comic in years and years), but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible to catch the ethos of Dredd in one film, as there are too many possible tones to cover – biting satire, gritty violence, political spoofery, full-on comedy, SF epic – but the makers obviously chose one and did it well. You can’t ask for more than that.

The film is certainly gritty, and certainly violent. In Karl Urban they found someone who didn’t seem obvious for the role, but plays it to perfection – no ego, just blank certainty. Thankfully the makers resisted the urge to do the Stallone thing and show their lead actor’s full face, letting the voice and the chin do the work for him. Paired with Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson, the two centre the film with their very different – but very successful – styles of acting. Add in Lena Headley in an oddly subdued but utterly threatening role as lead villain, and you have three very unusual performances for what is, nominally a blockbuster SF film.

Minor spoilers now…

But, watching it again, it became clear to me how unlike a mainstream film this is. The lead character has no arc, motivation or, really, personality. He’s a blank, his dedication to the law his only real trait. There’s no romance, there’s no sharing of emotion, there’s no insight into the character. This is a bold move for a film to make, used as we are to Campbellian journeys. Dredd learns nothing, doesn’t change, isn’t challenged in his worldview to any great extent, and ends the film undercutting the things he has acheived. Just another day in the grim city, and that’s where the film holds closest to the original comics. Dredd can’t win – he can only survive another day, and stop another criminal. The film is great at making it clear that MaMa (Headley) is a nasty piece of work – but she’s one gangleader in one of many thousands of megablocks. She’s nothing special. Her drug empire barely extends beyond one sector of the city. There’ll be another criminal tomorrow. This may be an unintended consequence of the low budget (although the film looks great), but it works.

Anderson has more of a shift in character, sort of, but it isn’t exactly the one we would normally expect. She opens the film on her first day as a rookie Judge ‘wanting to make a difference’. That isn’t entirely extinguished by the end, but it isn’t exactly reinforced, either. Her first killing shocks her a little, but it isn’t long before she has bought into the world’s sheer despair. There may be good people in the block, but they aren’t prepared to get involved, and many will turn to violence if needed. The man she shoots has just tried to kill her, and he won’t be the last. The fact that he has a wife and baby waiting for him is a shame, but Anderson processes the information, deals with it and moves on. By the end of the film she’s shooting down criminals with the same casual care as Dredd is.

Laura Sneddon has written about the gender balance in Dredd far better than I could here and it’s a very interesting read, although I think she glosses over a couple of moments that might damage her argument. I urge you to take a look and despair at the fact that what she sees in this film should be rare.

It seems as if Dredd didn’t do well enough in the US to warrant a sequel, which is a crying shame, but it’s a very different popcorn film. I really like it, but one of the people I watched it with last night didn’t, and I suspect a passing acquaintance with the source material probably is a real factor in enjoyment of the film. But give it a go, if you get a chance, if only to see what different looks like.