Welcome to a city defined by lawlessness. Welcome to a city of brutalist concrete architecture. Welcome to a city tagged with graffiti. Welcome to a city where homelessness is endemic. Welcome to a city where crime is a fact of life and the forces of law and order would rather twat you than look at you. Welcome to
Or, more specifically, welcome the Peach Trees tower block, the two hundred or so floors of which Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie officer Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) have to fight their way to the top of when a routine call turns spectacularly nasty.
And it’s this I keep coming back to whenever I despair that Pete Travis’s stripped-down yet stylised action thriller was a box-office disappointment. Released in 2012, it came at the tail-end of two years’ worth of claustrophobic genre movies set in high-rise apartments, from grungy French zombie flick ‘La Horde’ to urban Brit horror ‘The Citadel’ by way of ‘Attack the Block’, ‘The Raid’, ‘Tower Block’, ‘Rammbock’ and however many others. Was it a case of audience familiarity breeds ticket office contempt? Or was the collective memory still polluted by the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film? Either way, ‘Dredd’ deserved better.
The plot is minimalist: Dredd is asked to evaluate Anderson and decide if she’s fit to be a judge (judge in this sense being more like an armed response officer for whom due process doesn’t exist, and less like the white-wigged chappie Rumpole of the Bailey pisses off on a daily basis); they’re barely out of the precinct when they get a report of a triple homicide at Peach Trees; they attend and in quick succession: (i) apprehend suspect Kay (Wood Harris), (ii) determine that sociopathic and actually kinda sexy gang leader Madeline Madrigal a.k.a. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) has a stranglehold on the building; and (iii) find themselves outnumbered and devoid of back-up when Ma-Ma’s tame techie (Domnhall Gleeson) shuts down Peach Trees, effectively trapping them inside.
‘Dredd’ divests its sci-fi trappings within its first few minutes: the sprawling vistas of Mega City One and the expansive excitement of the van/bike chase that open the movie are quickly replaced by the grim claustrophobia of Peach Trees’s stairwells, corridors and apartments. Apart from one scene where heavy cannonfire punches a hole in a 76th storey wall, the outside world isn’t glimpsed again till the final frames. Once we’re inside the tower block, there’s only Dredd’s uniform and weaponry – and the specific side-effects of Slo-Mo, the drug for which Ma-Ma is using Peach Trees as a processing plant – to remind us that any of this is taking place in the future. For all intents and purposes, we could be watching something made and set in the 70s – a stripped down and über tense early John Carpenter flick, maybe, or an alternative version of ‘The French Connection’ but without the actual detective work and an only slightly more by-the-book version of “Popeye” Doyle.
Slo-Mo is a terrific concept: a drug that slows the user’s perceptions to those of a sloth on mogadon that’s chilling out next to a bonfire in Cheech and Chong’s garden. If you get what I mean. Ma-Ma’s favourite punishment for those who fall out of favour is to have them shot up with Slo-Mo and thrown off the top storey. The journey down lasts a lifetime for them. Then ends very abruptly in the atrium. Which is where Dredd and Anderson came in.
Anderson’s quirk is that she’s telekinetic, an ability that’s only really delved into in one scene – but it’s a damn good scene, and certainly the most unusual method of interrogation you’re likely to find in a crime movie. Your average James Ellroy character probably wouldn’t even recognise it as an interrogation and wonder where the baton and the rolled up telephone directory had gone. It’s also conveniently forgotten about in a scene where someone jumps Anderson from behind and she never “sees” it coming.
Thirlby’s performance is effective: Anderson is essentially the human element of the film given that Dredd is basically a non-character (he dispenses justice, usually from the business end of the gun, and if the dude has a life outside of his job, the audience sure as hell aren’t told about it) and Ma-Ma and her less-than-merry band of miscreants are thoroughly and unrepentantly degenerate. Having said that, Urban inhabits Dredd totally – the mask means that he has to give an entire performance via his upper lip, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen upper-lip work of this magnitude before. Lena Headey, as I may have suggested earlier, is some kind of awesome.
Finally, though, a film like ‘Dredd’ lives or dies by how tense it is and how explosive the action. It hits a home run in both respects. To such an extent that it’s gleefully easy to overlook just how fucking fascist the whole thing is. There are probably councillors for hard right-wing parties who watch ‘Dredd’ as an instructional video.
Here’s hoping its already noteworthy DVD afterlife (like ‘Fight Club’ it seems to be finding its audience post-theatrical release) means that a sequel isn’t just a pipe-dream. Poster-boy for enhanced police powers he may be, but Urban’s take on Dredd is as definitive as Robert Downey Jnr’s personification of Tony Stark. Except without the Audi or the party girls.