Saturdays used to be new comic day. When I was ten years old, the five minute walk to Susie’s general store on the bridge over the railway tracks was always one of enormous anticipation, because (along with the copies of the Radio and TV times) Saturday morning was when the new issue of 2000AD was available.
By the time I arrived home I had already flicked through the issue in its entirety, savouring a thorough read for my arrival home, but I just couldn’t stop myself from thumbing those flimsy pages, marked on the top corner of the front in biro, ‘Lerman’ (what did the shop owner know about future worth of such things?). I stopped buying 2000AD at around #600 (or prog 600 as it was known in the wonderful future slang that characterised the comic so well). I don’t think it was because I felt I’d grown out of it (I carried on reading comics for many years afterwards). It was more that it didn’t appeal to me in the same way, and something intrinsic about it – the art, the stories, the characters, the entire direction had progressed into – didn’t fill me with the same delight that Saturday mornings had for so long. It’s a shame really as I’d loved to have seen how the story of Judge Dredd had continued over the years. 2000AD’s flagship character, first appearing in prog#2 (which I own a copy of – only 16 issues are missing out of those 600). Dredd was always a perfect candidate for a movie adaptation, and I remember discussion in the pages of 2000AD back as early as about 1982 of the possibility of a movie with Clint Eastwood as Dredd. There’s no doubt the Judge Dredd of the comics owes a debt to ‘Dirty Harry’ in his curt delivery and sneer. Oh how we dreamed back then, and oh how I dreamed of the various movies that could be made, of Dredd and of many other terrific 2000AD stories (Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Halo Jones, Meltdown Man, The ABC Warriors, Bad Company, Nemesis the Warlock etc…)
I recall being quite excited about the 1995 movie adaptation, despite the trailers looking bad, but just the sheer event of it was enough to sweep me up. I mean, Stallone physically was right for the part and the rendering of Mega City One looked decent, and the Angel Gang were in there, and, and, and…
And the less said about that hideous mess the better.
It scarred me, in fact, and tarnished any future attempt to resurrect it. It filled me so full of scepticism and disappointment as it wasted this incredible character and the rich, exciting world he inhabited. They tried to cram every aspect of the comics (apart from the Dark Judges) into one film and then just trampled every aspect of the character that is so entertaining and unique. So when I heard about this new attempt to bring Dredd to the screen once again, I laughed and remained sceptical, but kept one vaguely hopeful eye on proceedings.
The trailer looked good, and I admit I felt a mild twinge of interest. And then the good advance notices started appearing – he keeps his helmet on, Judge Anderson is in it, it has an 18 certificate, there’s no comedy sidekick.
So last night I went with a few friends to see it.
I want to say that I rediscovered that Saturday morning excitement, or that I had that Saturday morning anticipation as I sat down and donned my 3D glasses to see the images of Mega City One rolling past, but I didn’t, and that’s as much down to the vast distance in time since I used to read the comic as it is to the deadweight anchor of disappointment evoked by the original film adaptation.
It is, however, a good film, and as a version of Dredd onscreen it is about as close as we’ll ever get. Karl Urban is perfect as Dredd. He reminds me most of early Dredd, before the character was depicted as a gigantic, hulking man with outrageous shoulder pads and an impossible helmet. The image was very much the Dredd of the Cursed Earth years, the grit of the original Carlos Ezquerra drawings, the lower-tech feel of the city before the story developed. That seemed a good approach. A sensible approach. And Urban nails the character as the emotionless, robotic, fascist law-machine that he is meant to be. He spits his lines with the dark irony of the Dredd that I know and love, and at the same time he feels human enough to be in genuine peril at points during the film. Olivia Thirlby is also excellent as Anderson, giving us the real human take on proceedings. Her character goes through the more traditional story arc as Dredd isn’t someone who learns or changes. He just is. He is the LAW. With Anderson taking the role of Rookie on assessment (like a driving test with added mandatory body count), a classic Dredd tale on its own, we learn about the ruthless decisions that need taken in Dredd’s world, and see the depths to which humans have sunk in their voluntary imprisonment in monolithic city-blocks with populations of 70,000+. She is the audience’s eye view and the heart of the film.
As big budget SF movies go, Dredd had a fairly modest budget, almost small in comparison to the gargantuan price-tags attached to the likes of The Avengers and other such product-placement-heavy summer blockbusters. And it certainly contains the narrative to one city-block, with only scant attention to the outside world of the city. In many ways the film felt more like an extended prologue, introducing us to the character and to the world. It’s gritty, and the brief outdoor locations show a fairly contemporary-looking city, with the only signs of advanced technology being the city-blocks and the Judges. It is a departure from the imagery of Mega City One that I’m used to, although the early years of Dredd are simpler, it didn’t leave a lot of room for introducing something as awesome as the Dark Judges for example, despite the attention paid to Anderson’s Psi abilities. Also gone is the future slang swearing that so marks out Dredd. I was torn about that one. I think it would be very tough to maintain the image of gritty desperation and almost current feeling of desolation and inner-city poverty, drug-dealing and gangland violence while having the characters exclaim such words as ‘Drokk’ or ‘Grud’ without the whole thing sounding a bit ridiculous.
Visually the film is stunning. I’m not a fan of 3D, but it is used well in this film, possibly the best use of it I’ve seen since Avatar. Still, I hate wearing the glasses, and dark scenes can look murky, but the drug-taking scenes are astonishing, transforming repellent ultra-violence into a bloody ballet of imagery, making even the most gory scenes awkwardly fascinating as you question why you’re enjoying such extreme violence so much.
I admit, today, I am thinking a lot about the film last night, which prompted me to write this review. I came away not quite sure what I thought. I knew I’d enjoyed it. Objectively, as a SF action film it’s excellent. From the point of view as a Dredd fan, cynical as hell, I kept wanting more, although it becomes quickly apparent what the film is going to consist of, which is why I can’t stop thinking about it. Because they nailed the character and the look. Dredd was always a reflection of the times in the UK when it was written – Thatcher government, bully-boy police tactics, riots, youth gangs, urban deprivation, and I think the film shoots for that angle most successfully. But there’s so much more to Dredd, and my first thought was that I wanted to see a sequel, perhaps covering the events of ‘The Day the Law Died’, or the Chopper stories (whose tag can be seen on a floor of the city block in the film) or at least exploring the vast world of Mega City One and the stories of Judge Dredd.
It’s a start, and my old excitement is growing. I have the urge to drag out my boxes of comics and read some old stories, remind myself of how much potential there is. There was a time when this movie would have meant a lot to me, and it’s ironic that when I was most into Judge Dredd I wouldn’t have been even vaguely old enough to get into this film at the cinema, but I’m starting to remember a little bit of what it felt like to open those pages and read the new story, which is why writing is something that is important to me. That feeling of delving into a new world, new characters, telling the story, creating the images. It’s why we write. To recapture the excitement and maybe, if we’re really lucky, someone else will feel the same way.