A long time ago, in a dive called Hollywood, a bunch of suits got their manicured hands on British comic 2000AD. Judge Dredd, a dystopian Dirty Harry, who policed the broken society of the future dispensing swift justice, because you can’t trust the citizenry’s peers when they’re all up to their necks in it, was reimagined as Sylvester Stallone: a cobalt eyed lunk. Dredd’s world – a matt, gruesome futurama, became a bloodless sandbox, in which Rob Schneider provided the comic relief. God’s savings were poured into it. The result showed great reach, dissatisfying both the world and its mother.
Now, 17 years later, a smaller, mid-budget version hits cinemas, enjoying the freedom an austere, independent production allows. In place of the listless behemoth of yesteryear there’s a tightly focused actioner: justice for Dredd.
Karl Urban’s snarling, bestubbled lawman never does anything so impertinent as taking his helmet off: instead, in a plot thread burrowed from more than one Eastwood picture, not least Dirty Harry instalment The Enforcer, he mentors a rookie, murders hoods with the law’s full support and shows the city’s chief gang leader who’s boss by tossing her right hand man from a 70 storey balcony. If the remake of Total Recall took its source material and sanitised it, Dredd does the opposite: it’s old school nastiness straight out of the compassionless 80s. Man, you’ve missed it.
Chris Morris once informed us that Cake, the Czechoslovakian narcotic that affects Shatner’s Bassoon, the part of the brain that controls time perception, has many disguises. To the likes of “loonytoad quack” and “Hattie Jacques Pretentious Cheese Wog”, we can now add “Slo-Mo”. The effect resembles sunshine sprinkled on distended acts of violence: the moment in full Technicolor. You can understand why the hopeless, joyless citizens of Mega-City One would crave this trip. But in a city of 80,000,000, with 17,000 crimes committed a day, and the police unable to respond to more than 6%, there’s zero tolerance.
You watch Dredd, with its fascistic conception of law enforcement and it’s easy to imagine a Tory justice minister, honourable member in hand, beating off to each summary execution, head shot and time-stretched explosion of bullet through bone and soft issue. For what is the Mega-City if not the vile underside of the inner city, writ large?
In America, where there’s always been a latent fear, safely explored in future shocks like Robocop and Escape from New York, that too much freedom will eventually lead to chaos, the on screen solution is always the same: oppressive violence. What makes it an acceptable fantasy is the idea, seldom questioned, that the personification of that policy is inherently a fair and decent individual: an anti-hero we can get behind because we trust them to uphold the rule of law in a brutalised world. Dredd doesn’t mess with that formula, nor does it forget, as the similarly plotted The Raid did, that a measure of mordant humour and hardboiled grit must be hotwired into the leading man, else the audience, flailing about in a nihilistic hellhole, without anyone they’d care to identify with, is sunk.
To the humming rhythm of grinding, industrial electronia, Urban’s Dredd provides many moments of uncompromising glee for the closet sadist. There can be little doubt that Ma-Ma, the former prostitute who once “feminised a man with her teeth” deserves what’s coming to her, nor that the grey interiors of the Peach Trees tower, in which the Judge and his appraise Olivia Thirlby become trapped, provides a grungy, spiritless backdrop for summary sentencing. It’s a raw, nasty movie, punctuated by moments of morbid beauty, that’s only misstep is not to provide more moments of mirth to alleviate the gloom. Nevertheless, it’s the most satisfying film of its type that we’ve seen in quite a while, and if there is indeed any justice, Karl Urban will be back on the streets in the near future, suspending our moral precepts for kicks.