Imagine for a moment that you’re part of the creative team behind Dredd. Your story’s set in a comically-bizarre, ultra-violent, future world. It also features one of the most iconic characters in British literature, known for being a man of action rather than of words. So how do you open your movie? Images of the streets, overrun with strange-looking characters? An action packed shoot out? Maybe a thrilling chase? Or do you combine a wide shot of an African city with two minutes of pointless, clumsy exposition?
Fortunately, after that brief stumble, Dredd gets back on track, moving straight into a high-adrenalin motorbike chase that should have been the opening. It’s a far more satisfying introduction to the character, and tells us a great deal more about the world than the shoehorned-in monologue.
Unfortunately, while the chase is great, the design work isn’t. Dredd might look like he’s just stepped off the pages of 2000AD, but the perps and civilians don’t. Instead they look like they’ve just stepped out of H&M. It’s jarring, but not as jarring as Dredd riding a bizarre looking motorbike that’s being used to chase down an unmodified late-90s VW Transporter.
The film finally finds its feet when we get to the interior scenes. The design quibbles disappear, which means that we’re not thrown out of the story every couple of minutes. We’re also introduced to Dredd’s sidekick, Cassie Anderson. Dredd’s a mean bastard, well played by Urban, but not exactly easy for the audience to connect with. Anderson is much more appealing – a rookie on her first day, unsure of herself. She’s very much the emotional heart of the story, with a much clearer character arc than Dredd, and Thirlby’s performance is compelling.
The dynamic between the two characters makes the simple story engaging. That said, while it works very well, we never get any real idea of the scale of the world in which it takes place. It’s unlikely we could have ever seen anything much grander, particularly with the limited budget available, but it would have been nice to have had a little more background detail. Perhaps some more scenes in the justice building, or a shot of a perp in an Iso Cube. Anything really, because as it stands the world feels very much like it consists entirely of a tower block, a few streets and couple of rooms in a police station.
In spite of this, the movie is still thoroughly enjoyable. Lena Headey is a great villain, and almost unrecognisable as Ma Ma, Urban and Thirlby are also excellent, as are the supporting cast. It’s well shot, and the slow motion sequences work well, and at no time feel overused.
All told, everything about Dredd is pretty good, and it should appeal to both action film fans and 2000 AD readers alike, even if Old Stony Face seems to take a little too much pleasure in punishing the wrongdoers of Mega City. It does however, lack the conviction, originality and sadly the budget that would take this from being a good movie to an excellent one.
It’s perfectly enjoyable and worth watching for Urban, Thirlby and Headey if nothing else, but its hard not to wonder what might have been had Garland and co been given a little more money. Hopefully if it does well enough to get a sequel it will have a little more ambition, and we’ll end up with a film set in Mega City One rather than District 9.