Dredd is an action movie and nothing more. Fortunately, the creators know this and it is a good action movie, an outright celebration of blood, guts, slaughter, and gore — and a large amount of it is in slow motion. And in 3D.
While such films are rarely the subjects of critical acclaim, they do have political significance. Action movies make the egalitarian Left uncomfortable. Most have no time for the nuances of social critique and moral ambiguity so beloved of the professors infesting Film Studies departments at our major universities. We don’t go to popcorn thrillers and put on 3D glasses to have our deepest assumptions questioned. We are here for escapism and stylistic violence.
As leftist academics well recognize, simplistic action movies tend to reinforce the deeper Aryan archetypes and motifs of Western culture, emphasizing masculinity, duty, and stark conflicts between right and wrong. A strong man takes up arms and defeats an onslaught of lesser beings, saving the community. By following these patterns, even (and especially) the most simplistic action movies can be the most subversive, and are duly recognized by our minders as “cryptofascist” and dangerous.
This is especially true with movies about law enforcement. While Radical Traditionalists have no illusions that contemporary police are anything other than the armed fist of an alien and hostile regime, most street cops spend their time dealing with a never-ending onslaught of black and brown crime. Even when heroes like Frank Castle (The Punisher) confront white mob bosses or the multicultural gangs that only exist in television and movies, both viewers and critics understand the implications of effective and forceful criminal justice would be racist and profoundly inegalitarian. It’s therefore not surprising that movies such as Death Wish or Dirty Harry are often condemned by social critics as objectively fascist and the sheer existence of films such as Harry Brown or Taxi Driver serve as warning signs of deep unrest and impatience with the festering rot of post-Western cities.
Dredd takes the tough cop model to its most extreme conclusion, positing a dystopian future where “street judges” operate as judge, jury, and executioner. While an earlier film treatment starring Sylvester Stallone was widely derided as a disgrace both as a film and to the source material (Rob Schneider costarred for God’s sake), Dredd is a stripped down reboot that stays true to the spirit of the character.
The plot is straightforward. Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd is a street judge, introduced to us while busting a truckload of (multicultural) junkies driving down the busy streets of Mega City One. Predictably, the chase ends with the deaths of all the criminals involved. Upon his return to headquarters, Dredd is instructed to supervise Judge Anderson on a training mission. Anderson is a marginal failure at the academy, but is being given another chance due to her incredible psychic abilities. Responding to the report of a triple homicide, Anderson and Dredd are trapped inside a “megablock” called Peach Trees, a gargantuan apartment complex housing hundreds of thousands of people. The leader of the criminal gang that runs the block, “Ma-Ma,” seals down the entire block and orders the two judges dead. They must fight their way out, through the Ma-Ma clan, every Peach Trees resident looking to gain favor with their criminal masters, and even four traitor Judges in league with the drug lords.
That’s basically it. Where Dredd succeeds is by communicating a great deal about the nature of Mega City One even with a low-budget, stripped-down style. Mega City One contains 800 million souls “living within the ruin of the old world” crammed in an urban sprawl that stretches from Boston to Washington DC. Everything outside is the Great Waste, irradiated from nuclear conflict. In what passes for an introduction, Dredd intones in a voiceover that the city is choking under its own weight, drowning on its own excess. Even as the urban landscape stretches on and on, director Pete Travis succeeds in creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia with all of these people crammed on top of each other like insects.
Mega City One is anarcho-tyranny in action. Drones fly overhead as dispatchers watching video screens track the population. Quick flashes show gangs terrorizing the population and throwing rocks at law enforcement vehicles. Only the Judges fight for “order in the chaos” from the Hall of Justice, a massive, fortified building with a stylized but simplistic eagle lit up against its huge façade. The population does not often encounter the Judges, as “Ma-Ma” initially brushes off their visit to Peach Trees as simply reminding the population that they exist. There is also an element of fear — a woman saved by Dredd early in the film squeaks “Thank you Judge” but seems almost as afraid of him as she was of the criminal.
The society itself is a cultureless wasteland. Fast food and pointless entertainment seems commonplace. People gather around scenes of violence taking pictures with their smartphones, and multiple murders within a shopping complex only briefly interrupts business until the blood can be cleaned away. Although the megablock (only one of hundreds or thousands) is named Peach Trees, nature is completely absent from Mega City One, and none of its residents have probably ever seen an actual peach tree. Unemployment in the Peach Trees complex is at 96% and the vast complex of stores and housing units has that combination of dilapidated poverty and mindless consumption common in the more vibrant neighborhoods of our own thriving democracy.
The corrupt Judge Lex, taunting Dredd as he attempts to kill him, sneers that treason against the “Law” and the “City” means nothing. “You know what Mega City is Dredd? It’s a meat grinder . . . and we’re the hands that turn the crank.” In the comic, bodies are utilized for food, and as Dredd refers to the corpse collecting vehicles as “Meat Wagons” picking up bodies for “recyc” we can assume this is also true in the film universe. Judge Lex is not just speaking in metaphor.
The gangs are appropriately multicultural and diverse, fitting for an overcrowded city where any form of organic culture has long since been eradicated. Even the crude identity of something like the “Latin Kings” can’t work in Mega City One. The Chief Justice is a black woman, just like in Newark, NJ, which has no real significance in the movie beyond the almost clichéd “black police chief” motif. Nonetheless, the movie manages to work in some racial subtext. Olivia Thirlby is a brunette actress with clichéd liberal opinions (she’s so daring and unique, she’s a bisexual civil rights hero!) but the movie transforms her into a blonde innocent pursued and threatened sexually by the more vibrant citizens of Peach Trees.
Wood Harris of The Wire plays Kay, one of Ma-Ma’s higher ranking black henchmen whose capture serves as the catalyst for Ma-Ma’s declaration of war. Because he knows the information Ma-Ma is desperate to conceal from the judges, Kay trudges along with Anderson and Dredd the entire movie, giving the filmmakers plenty of time to exploit Anderson’s psychic (and graphic) glimpses of Kay’s black on blonde sexual fantasies.
Lena Headey of 300 and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles steals the movie as Madeline Madrigal (Ma-Ma), a former prostitute who has worked her way up from the bottom, so to speak, to become a criminal mastermind. Ma-Ma controls the distribution of “Slo-Mo,” a drug that allows users to experience reality as if it were moving in extreme slow motion. While pleasurable when taking a bath or listening to music, Ma-Ma and her henchmen also use it for more painful ends, such as giving victims a hit before skinning them alive and throwing them from the top of a building. She runs the entire distribution and production operation from Peach Trees, which she is desperate to keep from the judges. If Kay leaves the building in custody, Ma-Ma’s empire crumbles.
Headey gives a fatalistic, moody performance utterly lacking in supervillain posturing and bravura — which is remarkable considering she spends a significant part of the movie threatening people with knives and mowing down an entire floor of people with a chain gun. In this world, this is what she has to do to survive and she simply does what is needed without sentimentality. At the same time, she almost yearns for death, and Headey somehow makes a character deliberately crafted to be ugly and sadistic even sexier than Cercei Lannister. Headey’s ability to make an utter monster charismatic, sympathetic, and even believable takes the film to an entirely new level, even if she isn’t given much in the way of dialogue to work with.
Mercifully, Karl Urban succeeds in giving the kind of portrayal Dredd deserves. The one-liners are flat and unemotional and the helmet (fanboys rejoice) stays on. Relying purely on his voice and his seemingly permanently gritted teeth and rigid jaw, Dredd mows through everything in his path while somehow conveying that he could break at any second if he lost control. He never does.
Mercifully, an utterly unnecessary kiss scene between Anderson and himself in an earlier script was removed as well. Anderson uses her psychic abilities to look into Dredd for a tantalizingly brief moment early in the film and senses “anger and control . . . but behind the control, something else . . .” before being stopped.
Why Dredd is so devoted to his duty and the law and to a city that seems to be rotting all around him is never explained, nor should it be. The mask is the key to Dredd — the simplest of comic book heroes, he’s also the most complex.
In contrast, Anderson wears no helmet, the beneficiary of the Hollywood excuse that a helmet interferes with her psychic powers. This allows both male and females of Thirlby’s own persuasion to gawk at her the entire film, but also allows her to show more emotion and sympathy. She’s the social worker judge, telling Dredd how she herself grew up in a megablock, how there are good people who live there, and expressing the requisite mild disquiet with a justice system that executes people where they stand. She lets one criminal go when she uses her powers to determine he’s been working under duress and unironically declares she wants to make a difference. Dredd intones, “Admirable,” but we can’t tell if he’s agreeing or mocking her. Maybe he doesn’t even know.
One interesting scene of a psychic confrontation between her and Kay suggests that there is steel underneath the pretty blonde head as she literally makes her black antagonist piss himself in terror, but it is left unexplored. Again, this actually works, as Dredd operates best by suggesting there is more going on than what is just in front of us.
It’s an action movie, so it’s not a huge surprise that the main villain is caught and her drug operation destroyed. It’s hard to say whether the world is a better place for all of that. Dozens, if not hundreds of people are killed throughout the course of the film, all so that unemployed and poverty stricken people can’t use a narcotic. That said, the blood is on the hands of the Ma-Ma Clan. The Clan’s actions and the general picture of Mega City One presented suggest that even if Slo-Mo were legal, the gangs would use something else to support themselves. As Anderson learns when she unwittingly meets the wife of a man she has “judged” and killed, even people with families and children in the blocks are gun-toting thugs willing to kill for money and power.
The film’s portrayal of ruthless violence, sadistic torture, and nihilistic destruction of entire communities (such as they are) belie any attempt to deconstruct Dredd as a critique of “law and order.” Dredd plays it straight, though the next film in the series promises to look at the more “disturbing” elements of the Judges’ supposed fascism.
While the Judges of the comic are not beyond the law, actually are somewhat accountable to the population at large, and do not administer a totalitarian society, the people do not rule themselves in Dredd’s world. The premise of Dredd is that freedom failed – they tried democracy and it ended in chaos. While left wing critics (and even some writers of the strip) may amuse themselves by “satirizing” American law enforcement by calling them fascists, it doesn’t have the effect they intend on the mass public. Characters such as Judge Dredd are popular precisely because of their fascist tendencies, a sort of double irony that speaks to Americans who don’t understand why the cops can’t just beat the crap out of the junkies on the corner.
Ultimately, the system of the Judges is not democratic nor really fascist, which, after all, are both dependent on mass politics. It is rule by an Order, a system more in line with Plato’s Republic than Mussolini’s New Roman Empire. The Judges hold to a supreme code (the Law) and the Order fights for order within the chaos, barely holding back the city from consuming itself. Nonetheless, even within the Order, there is corruption, as four Judges betray their duty in exchange for money. As Plato described thousands of years ago, mercantile and spiritual values ultimately cannot coexist within a ruling caste. As is mentioned throughout the film, the Judges fighting their own slo-mo defeat to bring order to Mega City One. Rather than simply a function of resources, there is a deeper conflict left unspoken at the heart of their decline. If an esoteric Order is fighting to defend a cultureless, swollen mass of materialistic proles, how can the Judges themselves keep from being corrupted, either by lust for “credits” or cynicism about a meat grinder? Why is Mega City One worth saving?
The two heroes suggest different answers. Anderson, who bitterly states she is not cut out to be a judge during her ordeal, ultimately becomes a street judge at the end of the film, marching out into the city in full uniform. Her experience suggests that she would say saving even one citizen from violence or making a difference to even a small group makes it worthwhile. This is the kind of motivation even modern people can understand and even Radical Traditionalists can say, without judgment, is “admirable,” if not practical or sustainable.
Dredd’s code is different. There’s “rage and control” and Dredd’s proclamations about “fighting for order in the chaos” and his disgust at this awful city and its criminals suggest that he believes in what he’s doing and envisions somehow an orderly metropolis redeemed from the filth. Ultimately, however, that “something else” that keeps him going is the unification of identity and duty. Dredd is not a social worker with a gun, but a Guardian who judges because, as in Plato’s Republic, it is his nature to do so. Driven by rage and his calling, Dredd is akin to Arjuna of the Bhagavad-Gita, who is told, “Fight you will, your nature will make you fight. Your karma will make you fight. You will fight in spite of yourself.”
When cornered with Anderson and told reinforcements are on the way, Dredd chooses attack rather then even tactical retreat. He upholds his ethos – fulfills his karma – even when it’s pointless or hopeless. Alone, hopelessly outnumbered, he flatly announces to Peach Trees, “In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law . . . I am the law.” It’s beyond reason, and beyond ego, but ultimately, what kind of life (higher and otherwise) exists in Mega City One is upheld by that credo.
So too with this world. Organic culture is ground into the muck of the soulless cities, animals on two legs somehow combine the worst vices of squalor and decadence, and the society is a meat grinder turning people into products. Only a credo and a commitment can allow even momentary transcendence, if not for the entire society, at least for those who choose to accept the challenge. Egalitarians may see Dredd as a satire of law enforcement, but adherents of Tradition can see it as one way men and women can at least attempt to Ride the Tiger of modernity. Perhaps it can be seen as a truly biting satire of a nightmarish mass society that may be inevitable in the face of ever increasing urbanization and social control. Most of all, as we view a society that is transforming into something even worse than Mega City One, perhaps Dredd can be seen as one of the more entertaining forms of inspiration, to walk out of the theater, ponder what defiance we can cling to in the midst of the ruins, and, wearing our own mask over our emotions, pronounce to this sordid society that Judgment Is Coming.