2012 was the year of the superhero – there was nary a true action film to be found. The Avengers ruled the box-office, the first true ensemble superhero movie and it made a stupid $1b; The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t too far behind. Between the two of them, it’s signalled and hinted at a whole new wave of sequels and franchises. Which is fine, of course, but if you don’t care much for superhero films then you were left out in the cold. There were multiple action scenes in the film that were absolutely excellent however as a whole there was no action star to speak of. Superheros transcend such a label and become, due to their powers or freakish skill, a beacon of hope for humanity. They represent the world (read: America), fighting for basic human rights against the oppression of whatever evil warlord is starring in the script.
What makes an action hero, exactly? Once upon a time it involved being able to infiltrate an enemy camp to save your daughter and perfectly kill a hundred soldiers that can’t aim, all while merely suffering the faintest of bullet grazes. Then CGI came in and suddenly these oversized gym junkies could fly and it turned into sheer nonsense. The action hero isn’t worldly – he rules suburbs, cities at a stretch, and killing comes easy. The jokes need to be ironic (see: Schwarzeneggar) and, most importantly, good. Also, never cast Rob Schneider in it. In a nutshell, the exact opposite to Stallone’s Judge Dredd.
Ignoring all the straight-to-video releases that litter every year, this left 2012 mostly empty of true action stars. The Raid certainly helped fill the void however it was lacking in an outright star in-between all the ass-kickery and insane stunts. Just as The Avengers were about a group of superheros fighting as one, The Raid was a group of cops invading a building as a single unit. Until, you know, corruption and stuff.
Finally, Dredd arrived. Loaded with baggage that could weigh down an aircraft due to Stallone’s campy 1995 “I am the raw!” Judge Dredd, Karl Urban had huge shoes to fill that were never worn to begin with. Similar in premise to The Raid (accusations of thievery however are laughable), it promised more destruction and carnage than ever before.
And we finally got it.
We’re welcomed back to the American wasteland that greeted us back in 1995 except this time it’s far dirtier and Dredd isn’t moaning outside the city walls, going through poorly acted dramatics. “America is an eradiated wasteland. Within it lies a city. Outside the boundary walls – desert,” Dredd tells us through voiceover, throwing us into the deep end without the embarrassing dialogue that dogs so many of these flicks. It’s heavy on the consonants – “an unbroken, concrete landscape” – and the dry sand weighs heavily under the rotting sun.
Dredd was the man we needed. He can’t fly, he can’t pick up cars, he doesn’t wield an ancient hammer and he probably earns minimum wage. There’s no dickish one-liners (phew) and there’s a refreshing absence of, for lack of a better phrase, masculine competition. (What I’m getting at there is the male cast constantly trying to out-man each other. It turns into a 2 hour-long dick measurement competition and becomes deathly boring. See: the arm wrestle in Predator.) What little mutant abilities are present through Anderson’s ability to read minds is small in scope and as a result keeps the film focused on survival. And heavy firepower.
I’m not going to pretend I am familiar with the source material – my experience is limited to a one time reading of the comic of the first film when I was 16 – but it seems it has been adapted with a 21st century mind. Madeline Madrigal aka Ma-Ma is the enemy, defusing the typical all-male centric cast of just about every action film ever. Even Dredd is equipped with a female sidekick – Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby of The Wackness. It doesn’t attribute this to a political purpose – the film isn’t exactly highbrow – but it’s a relief to witness less of a focus on the heavy muscle.
Cinema hasn’t seen such a legitimate killing machine in a long time. Dredd’s sole purpose, when in the suit, is to amalgamate the three notions of judge, jury and executioner, depending on what the ‘perp’ is accused of. Gone are the moral judgments and questioning of self – this is the land of kill or be killed. Such reflection serves little purpose in a land of desperate junkies eager to stab you and steal your wallet for their next fix of slo-mo. There’s no gravity defying stunts (thank God) and in their place is a shootout, turned up to 11. The Ma-Ma clan practically destroys a whole level of the 200-storey building in an attempt to kill the Judges. It’s the kind of firepower that leaves you awestruck, just as it did seeing cities destroyed by X number of superhero films, the kind of woah-eliciting response that hasn’t been seen since the greatest killing machine of all, The Terminator.
What makes Dredd stand head and shoulders above the others is the sheer killing element and lack of respect towards life. There’s little moral grounds – Dredd decides if a kill is worth it based on how much paperwork he will be responsible for – and what little is present is a teaching element with Anderson, the rookie. Her motivation for becoming a Judge is driven by a desire to help people having been raised in the slums of Peachtree herself. She is the exception in a world where a man crossing the road is killed without forethought, where a homeless man is accidentally crushed under a steel door and there’s barely a wince in reaction.
There’s no dumb parading of half naked women and Olivia Thirlby’s Anderson is dressed in a very unflattering suit. There’s no Hollywood bullshit romantic entanglements, no cringe worthy Joke Relief Character #1. Life doesn’t exist outside of the Mega City walls and barely exists within it. It is as dry as the desert they’re supposed to be protected from and the only hope anyone has is the Judges. Director Pete Travis, with writer Alex Garland were wise to keep the focus limited to one building. There’s such a push to incorporate elements of everything that movies often get confused early on as to what they are and run out of steam pretty quickly as a result (I still can’t comprehend why Fast Five, a dumb film about cars, felt the need to incorporate a minor African war).
Excessive violence plays a major part in the action of the film and in a world where eccentric billionaire playboys can create their own suit and fly around earth, this is necessary to avoid it looking like the socially awkward 3rd cousin. America is a dying nation and the frying sun is not conducive towards creating life. Death is all around these people and it is only a by-product that life is not something anyone respects. We see excessive blood spillage and the crushed up bodies after falling 200 storeys to the ground. This isn’t gore for gore’s sake and there’s no Rob Schenider to ruin the moment either.
This America is an eradiated wasteland. It’s ugly, coarse, fucked-up and without hope. True action heroes have been wayward since the gluttony of the 80s and everyone has now been transformed in a mutant through the wonders of CGI. Nothing has been more human of late than Dredd and his desire to conquer the Ma-Ma clan and leave a locked-down 200-storey building alive. This is action heroism – the wide angle landscape shots in the beginning highlight the sheer number of those high-rise towers and if Dredd can do the job here, then he’s got a lot more work to do before order is brought back to Mega City 1. The film is smart in its scope and wise in its focus and if you’re still not willing to believe me, consider this. Dredd never takes his helmet off. Ever. There’s no poster shots or pretty-boy moments. And that’s how it should be.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire