Thanks to the noisy barrage of superhero movies flying towards the silver screen every year seemingly since the start of the new millennium, modern audiences’ opinion of the humble comic-book movie has been altered. Not every comic has to feature a high-flying spandex-wearing superhuman who fights crime and saves the day with a smart alec quip, as screenwriter Alex Garland illustrated with 2012’s Dredd, comic-book movies can be so much more.
The year is 2080, and the earth has been scorched by nuclear war, with the United States being reduced to a wasteland named the Cursed Earth. Still, even in times of bleak hardship, the order must be maintained, with the violent metropolis of Mega-City One, where 17,000 serious crimes are reported daily, being overseen by Judges, futuristic police officers dressed in sleek black uniforms with distinctive red masks. In a land where violence is prevalent, these law-enforcement juggernauts are, quite literally, judge, jury, and executioner.
The character, conjured back in 1977 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, was the perfect antihero for Garland to take on, with the screenwriter having already handled the complex protagonist of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the tragic male lead of Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. Stern, resolute and wonderfully mysterious, the aptly named protagonist, Judge Dredd, is like Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with no name’, if the latter existed in a hellish future and had no time for life’s fruitless frivolities.
After a ruthless crime boss named Ma-Ma (Lena Heady) executes and skins three drug dealers before throwing them off the top floor of the 200-storey tower block, Dredd (Karl Urban) and his psychic rookie partner Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby) go to investigate, discovering a drug den riddled with Slo-Mo in the process. Sharing a strange amount of similarities to Gareth Evans’ Raid movie of one year prior, the tower block is then closed off, forcing the Judges to fight for survival against a ruthless drug gang.
It’s a gripping concept, beautifully paced and realised by Garland, who spices the dystopian world up with a number of nasty surprises that help punctuate the true darkness of Mega-City One. Very much feeling like a palette cleanser to the main course of a sequel (that is sadly still yet to come), Garland’s script, directed by Pete Travis, is an utter joy to behold, transporting the viewer to a nightmarish world to a terrific degree of success.
Well balancing the tone between indulgent violent farce and genuinely gripping drama, perhaps Garland’s biggest success is creating a film that well utilises the overused gimmick of 3D. Through the drug Slo-Mo, which is used at several points throughout the film, Garland hurls the audience into a visual bonanza where time slows to a steady crawl and every bullet wound, punch and glare of pure panic is met with visceral pleasure. Cynical movie lovers among us would call the narrative device a gimmick, but for a comic-book film trying to invite the audience into its bombastic world, the drug is the perfect party trick.
These spellbinding action sequences and snappy dialogue scenes are carried out by a cast that revels in the pig swill of the setting, with Karl Urban taking on the lead role with a magnetising mystique that beckons probing, whilst Olivia Thirlby acts as his emotional opposite, being a compassionate individual who acts as the film’s emotional core. But, it is their shared adversary, Heady’s Ma-Ma, who is truly loving her chance to be the villain, playing a sick-minded psychopath with even more malice than her Game of Thrones villain, Cersei Lannister.
Other comic-book movies could only dream of encapsulating the same effortless style as Dredd, with the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and beyond looking like anaemic corporate reproductions. Stamping on the world of popular cinema with a distinctive action thriller that flowed with surprising cinematic grace, Garland created an action flick that blows you away, judge, jury and executioner.