It’s been ten long years and fans still lament a lack of a Dredd sequel. Not that some haven’t been trying. Over the years the desire for a follow-up to the 2012 comic book adaptation has been constantly seen but to no avail. Amidst a cost-of-living crisis and Britain taking more bites of the Orwellian cherry, one may ask if a satirical take on a near totalitarian landscape is the type of escapism that we should be seeking refuge in. However, rewatching Britain’s favourite judge, jury and executioner in this isolated, one-shot form is still a fine slice of brutal B-movie entertainment.
It’s still mildly surprising that the film happened. Dredd’s bizarre production history feels like something yanked out of one of the smaller fire pools of development hell, with director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland allegedly agreeing on an “unorthodox collaboration” over the creative process.
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No matter how one squints at the page, the term “unorthodox collaboration” still feels like a massive slap in the face with a few pages of an NDA agreement. Granted Dredd comes off better than many other unfortunate films whose nightmarish productions haunt filmmakers to this day, however, it’s easy to see a film veer off the tracks and into a hodgepodge of nonsense. I’m looking at you Jonah Hex (2010).
This is possibly due to the main vision of the film being so on point. While it may lose some of the satirical wryness found in the comic, it’s also a few steps away from the first incarnation of Judge Dredd as a feature-length film. The Disney-backed, Danny Cannon-directed blockbuster also suffered from divisive production issues. Mostly stemming from the studio and its star (Sylvester Stallone) having desires for the film to be more humorous and toned down in its violence. Whether or not 2012 Dredd is an exact adaptation of the 2000 AD comic strip will be down to more hardcore fans. What Dredd 2012 has over its 90’s counterpart is more conviction in its concept. Dredd is less of a highly polished, four quadrant hail Mary, and more like a spiritual counterpart to its inspirations. Namely Dirty Harry (1971).
Dredd borrows liberally from its source material as well as Don Siegel’s Harry. While the film remains set in the post-nuclear “Cursed Earth” of the comics, it eschews the commonplace method of either heroes’ origin or populist story canon. Instead, Dredd envisions a day in the life scenario in a similar vein to Training Day (2001). Here Dredd (Karl Urban) and his new rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are assigned to investigate a three-man homicide in the 200-storey tower block of Peach Trees; a Tower slum in the heart of the violent metropolis that is Mega-City One. The murders are connected to a ruthless gang led by their sadistic leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey); an ex-sex worker turned drug lord. Things become drastic when the homicides draw attention to the distribution of Ma-Ma’s mind-altering drug SLO-MO. Ma-ma shuts Peach Trees down to the outside world, ordering the death of the Judges.
Lean in conception, volatile in execution, Dredd is still an enjoyable movie to rewatch. While uninterested in topical bite, the film still finds moments of irreverent glee alongside accomplished, cheek-splitting violence. Urban’s Dredd spits gravelly one-liners as if they’re out of fashion while blasting lowlifes left, right and centre with his ginormous hand cannon for breaking the law. There’s not much to proceedings. It’s a series of violent set-pieces, which just about hang to a threadbare plot. And yet it’s tough not getting a kick out of watching Dredd tear it up in this absurd authoritarian landscape. Possibly because there’s no over-heroic Alan Silvestri score warping the tone. Or Rob Schneider being Rob Schneider.
Despite having the same run time as its 90’s counterpart, there’s a distinct lack of distraction to proceedings. Dredd is economical in its world-building and its character. Dredd himself is quickly established by Anderson’s (first name Cassandra) psychic abilities. A whip-smart moment that develops both characters with a minimal amount of fuss. Dredd simply does the basics right. Leaning more into the grit of the comic strip, rather than bending itself out of position to fit into a Hollywood landscape. Urban’s performance is a standout. With a helmet covering half of his face, the actor infiltrates a scene with menace, regret, and tension with little need for words.
In B-movies like this, the action does much of the talking and Dredd is chock full of the type of BFGs that would make the doom guy salivate. Dredd’s UK release coincided with Gareth Evans’ equally fun martial arts feature The Raid (2011) in the same year. While both share similar narrative aspects, along with a fair share of bloodletting, Dredd is the film for the gun nuts. Miniguns spray across storeys. Bricks and bullets whizz past at an alarmingly regular rate. Early on Dredd updates Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky” moment with a scene that one can only describe as the “hotshot” moment. It appears early on and may have you thinking about fire lanterns. What sets the film’s action apart is the film’s drug, SLO-MO, giving it an extraordinary reason to utilise slow motion. We see everything from the user’s perspective. Faces shred. Dollops of claret cascade across the screen at a fraction of the usual rate. The bloodlust and appeal of Dredd’s violence are heightened ten years on, almost simply because the filmmaking is so purposely distinctive.
While we may never fully know what the unorthodox collaboration may mean in the fullest sense, there’s a feeling that ten years later Alex Garland’s idiosyncratic hand is even stronger in the film now than back then. With three unique pieces under his belt, it’s difficult not to consider Dredd as a training ground for the soon-to-be director. The trippy visuals of the SLO-MO drug wouldn’t appear too out of touch with moments of Garland’s sophomore feature Annihilation (2018). The dream-like feel of the drug-taking scenes does not feel too far apart from Annihilation’s more out-there sequences. Whichever way the unconventional production went down it’s astonishing to note just how singular Dredd is throughout the whole of its run time. Much like its lead character, the film is single-minded throughout.
But looking back on Dredd a decade since, despite the film not setting the box office aflame and encouraging a batch of sequels, the timing of its release on the grand scale could not be more perfect. Sneaking out the same year as The Dark Knight Rises, Chronicle, The Amazing Spiderman and The Avengers, Dredd finds itself coming out before the demand for joined-up universes took hold. While it flew under the radar for many, it still feels like it carved an identity free from some of the demands that franchise movies look set to take.
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With this said, it’s no surprise that Dredd has a cult status around it. The film is allowed to be its own thing. An example of this lies in the fact that the film’s hawkish, authoritarian dystopia, quietly passes the Bechdel test. Dredd does this without being loud about having a so-called “political agenda” or not; it just does it with no fuss. Perhaps because there would be less focus on such things at the time. However, with the awkward attempts of girl power found in comic book movies afterwards (I am most certainly talking about Endgame), it’s hard not to be amused at how much a film like Dredd was allowed to almost tread an interesting through-line whether it meant to or not.
Whether such aspects matter, will of course be down to the viewer. With Dredd’s holding such a cult status, there’s still a large group of people who may not have sat down to enjoy this lean piece of ferocious gunplay. As a film Dredd is a law in itself. Which is how its lead character likes it.
Dredd was released in the UK on 7th September 2012.