Judicious execution

Suits you: Karl Urban in Dredd.

Suits you: Karl Urban in Dredd.

Some of my readers have complained that my last two movie reviews were burdened with too much history and politics, so it’s good to have Dredd — a movie adapted from a comic book — to review this week. In fact, it’s good to see the movie at all, because I was beginning to think it must be permanently delayed.

It was more than two years ago that I was on the set of Dredd, which is a long time even for a movie heavy with special effects. Along with some other cinematic types and publicity personnel, I was invited to inspect the new Cape Town Film Studios and a few hours of the making of Dredd, most of which was shot there with a largely South African crew.

One was certainly impressed by the studios, the filmmakers’ care and attention to detail, as well as the droll enthusiasm of British producer Andrew MacDonald (brother of Kevin, director of The Last King of Scotland and The Eagle). For fans of the original Judge Dredd comic, as published in 2000AD magazine in the 1980s, it was encouraging to hear that this time Judge Dredd would keep his helmet on. In the comics you never saw his face, but in Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 appropriation of the story that was not going to happen, even for one with lips as recognisable as Stallone’s. A superstar keeping his face hidden for the whole movie? You gotta be kidding me.

Obviously the filmmakers behind this new Dredd have spent the past two years putting the CGI backgrounds and special effects in, or doing whatever fiddling they had to do, but here it is at last. And a very decent fist it makes, too, of getting the original Dredd story on to the screen with much of its dystopian grit intact. (Some of that grit is even provided by Johannesburg locations: look out for some under-highway speeding. It’s kind of weirdly pleasing to find our own megacity standing in for the imagined one, even if it is imagined as perfectly horrible.)

The movie is, I believe, officially called Dredd 3D, which is to over-emphasise a technical or marketing tool. Despite what looked like interesting extensions of 3D in the shooting of it, I can’t see that it will suffer when it comes out on DVD and is just plain Dredd for all posterity.

Karl Urban, whom I believe to be Australian, is the actor in the iron mask — not even eyes visible. His lips, though, prove to be capable enough actors to get him through the role; those smackers and the rest of his body, encased though it is in a chunky Dreddsuit. (I’m pleased to say that the new technology of cellphones and the like has been pretty seamlessly integrated into a story now nearly 30 years old. And when it doesn’t work the narrative has a good excuse.)

Dredd is set in the future as envisioned in Thatcher’s Britain. So that would be post-apocalypse, probably nuclear, and most of the former USA is either desolate wasteland or a vast urban conurbation called Mega-City One, which looks like a cross between American inner city, British 1970s council housing and the Soviet Union. Here the general populace lives a pretty miserable life in high-rise Pontes, crime is naturally rife, and it’s all policed by the judges. As their name suggests, they are cops as well as prosecutors, judges and, if necessary, executioners.

On the particular day on which our story takes place, guttural veteran Dredd has been given a new recruit (Olivia Thirlby) to take through a day’s probationary trial. She’s got extrasensory powers, which makes her a mutant. This is the only mention of mutants, who were fairly important in the original comic. Perhaps they’re being kept in reserve for the sequel (Dredd 4D?).

Enhanced entertainment
The clairvoyant trainee luckily looks entirely human to the naked eye, or at least the eye with 3D specs on, and she is of course young, blond and female. She doesn’t have to keep her head covered up throughout the movie because her helmet interferes with her special mental abilities, and she’ll certainly need them as she and Dredd boldly go into one of those megablocks and find that this one is ruled from the top floor by a vengeful drug lord and her pack of goons.

There is much running, fighting, shooting, escaping and exploding, all to the enhanced entertainment of the viewer. The claustrophobia of the dark, grimy spaces of this block, eerily lit or half-lit in different shades, is used brilliantly to create atmosphere, adding to the tension as this violent game of cat-and-mouse continues. A driving storyline and good script (by Alex Garland) makes Dredd a shoot-’em-up of the highest quality.

It’s good, too, to see a few South African actors in the movie, though Langley Kirkwood has to wear the helmet of a judge and Jason Cope as a baddie has had his face so comprehensively scarred by make-up that he’s all but unrecognisable. The chief villainess is also horribly scarred, and is played rather frighteningly well by Lena Heady (Cirsei Lannister in Game of Thrones). Scars are two a penny in Mega-City One.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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