Thursday, 28 February 2013

Holy Drokk on Toast! Dredd is good!

When I was around 14, I drew my own 2000AD comic. It was called Falk Point, and it was about a group of rebellious British Judges based on the Falkland Islands. In my story the lead character did a “Long Walk’, just like in the comics. Only whereas in 2000AD Judges walk across an entire continent, my judge walked across... a small island. With some argentinian death robots thrown in. It was ludicrous of course, but at the time I thought it was ace.

Still, I think it shows how much 2000AD meant to me. When people at school teased me for reading scifi comics, I was quite content to dismiss them as hopeless fools. Nothing would drag me away from entertainment that good. I was an addict. I lost myself in the boundless worlds and future histories the comics created. They meant infinitely more to me than any of the Marvel or DC titles. They were more believable, more brutal and more fun. 2000AD characters weren’t heroes, they were killers and mutants. They didn’t moan about relationships or morality, they lived and breathed the worlds of their stories. I had my favourites: Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, ABC Warriors and Maniac 5 spring to mind - but I also loved the more outlandish stuff.

Harke & Burr by Dean Ormston
Harke and Burr was a brilliantly drawn curiosity by Dean Ormston, my favourite comic artist alongside Carlos Ezquerra. Calhab Justice was a gothic, creepy tale of judges in Scotland. Devlin Waugh “Swimming in Blood” was a stand alone comic that was quite, quite brilliant. And at the centre of it all, of course, was Judge Dredd. There seemed no limit to the inventive fun the writers and artists had.

I was always bewildered that nobody was making movies based on these extraordinary stories. When Stallone’s abysmal Judge Dredd movie came along in 1995, I was certain that its hideous failure would simply mean that a good Director would take over, dump Stallone and create an amazing second film. If they didn’t, I would do it for them. (My brother thought when I did I should cast Dolph Lundgren, as he was the only one out there with the requisite chin). Then, over time, it became clear no movie was coming. Furthermore, I wasn’t a famous director. I put my comics to one side and forgot about it.

Then, last year, came the new movie. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t go and see it. Perhaps I was worried about it stamping on my childhood the way its predeccesor had. Or maybe I was just too lazy. Whatever the case, I think my 15 year old self would have been quite disgusted if he found out I hadn’t gone to see it several times in the cinema. It was, after all, up to fanatics like me to ensure it got the audience it deserved. Now I learn that while it topped the UK Box Office, it tanked in the States.

And I feel terrible. I should have been there for the film. I have friends in the States and I should have hassled them all to go, and take five friends too. Because from what I read online, the outlook for a second installment doesn’t look good.

That’s a shame. It stands up really well. Penned by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis, it does just about everything right that the Stallone abomination did wrong, and proves that actually, it ain’t that hard to make a decent 2000AD movie.

Devlin Waugh, swimming in blood
First off, it doesn’t try to do too much - it puts Dredd in a kind of day-in-the-life-of-a-judge situation, introducing the character, without trying to cram in ten different stories at the same time. It has a good strong support cast as well. Olivia Thirlby is great as the psychic Judge Anderson, which is quite an achievement. Psychics are not easy to play - witness Diana Troy, by far the most irritating character in Star Trek TNG. Lena Hedley, of whom I am not normally a fan, also turns in a good performance as the crime boss, Mama. It even has The Wire’s Wood Harris in a major role.

Secondly it evidently has too small a budget to splash CGI all over the shop. When I saw the way the film presented Mega City One I could have kissed the screen. Instead of drowning everything in a mess of swirling CGI noise, Travis adds a dash of effects to augment very recognisable urban settings. He takes great pleasure in panning over an East Coast city, before revealing a huge Mega Block looming massively over everything around it. Dredd’s opening line has the feel the film is going for: “800 million people living in the ruin of the old world, and the mega structures of the new one”. Even when the perps are driving knackered VW vans it helps to ground the story, and give you the sense, just like 2000AD did, that this kind of lawless dystopia might not be too far away.

Thirdly, it takes itself seriously. It’s not garish or cartoonish, recognising that any Dredd film shouldn’t try to replicate the comic look but interpret it. Stallone’s Dredd wore an outfit so shiny he might have been a circus act. This Dredd wears body armour, with the eagle realistically moulded onto a shoulder pad.

Dredd also went to the States with an R rating, being true to the brutality of the comic books. That’s not just brutality in terms of bodycount, but of society in general. Judges order the mangled bodies of the just murdered to be recycled. A homeless man sits outside a mega block with a sign on his lap reading: “Will debase self for credits”. Mega City One is a terrible, frightening place. As one character says: “this city is a meat grinder. All we do is turn the handle.” Unfortunately the commitment to making an R Rated movie evidently helped to sink Dredd’s opening weekend in the US.

Finally, and most importantly, Karl Urban does a great job as Dredd. He has a few killer lines (“It’s all a deep end”) moulds his chin into a suitably preposterous appendage, wields the famous Lawgiver pistol expertly, and plays it with a certain ruthless cool that genuinely surprised me.

I could watch twenty more of these films, just like I read the comics. There is simply a limitless seam of stories waiting to be mined. Yes it’s not groundbreaking, yes it’s a bit like “the Raid”, but it tells an exciting story well, and lays the groundwork brilliantly for what could be an extended franchise. But after doing some reading, I’m afraid it seems that might well be it for Dredd.

And that’s a shame. Because the greatest accolade I can give it is that it made me remember my long lost love for 2000AD, that old friend that I somehow forgot.

If you haven’t seen it, buy the DVD or Blu-Ray and maybe it will help push through a second movie. Garland apparently started with a storyline about Judge Death, one of the spookiest and far-out ideas there ever was. Lets help him make that happen.

Now where have I put those comics?