Dredd is a far better, smarter, and well-made film than anyone had a right to respect. It gets nearly everything right. It’s visually beautiful, even when disgusting. It’s entertaining. But it’s also disturbing and thought-provoking.
(It’s also impossible to discuss seriously without spoilers, so consider yourself warned.)
A lot of ink will no doubt be spilled about Dredd’s fidelity to its source material. Dredd keeps his helmet on (which can’t be said of the 1995 film Judge Dredd, ignored by this reboot). Damned if Karl Urban’s chin doesn’t look like a Carlos Ezquerra drawing, in some scenes. More importantly, his acting is dead on. Judge Anderson (here still a rookie) is included in a remarkably faithful (and memorable) depiction. The movie’s got plenty of Easter eggs for fans, from visual references to artists like Brian Bolland to graffiti referencing Chopper.
This isn’t to say that Dredd is a slavish adaptation. The Judge uniforms are altered, to be a bit more practical, and their motorcycles don’t have the absurdly large wheels that work in the comics but are impractical in film. Reportedly in order to give readers a sense of scale, Mega City One has been redesigned, with more space for roads and the like between its giant block towers, which are more uniform.
The one exception is that the original Dredd stories possessed a more flippant, parodic tone. Thus, when Dredd wandered the Cursed Earth, he originally encountered a war between fast food restaurant chains (though this story is no longer reprinted for legal reasons). Such elements likely would not adapt well. Also, plenty of Dredd stories (including some of my favorites) don’t include such elements, so this isn’t a matter of altering the original’s tone as much as it is a matter of picking and choosing from the spectrum of possible tones available. In fact, given the long histories of many comics characters, this is often inevitable.
For Judge Dredd, however, other matters of tone are so essential that they’re essential to the character. Above all others is the political and ethical subtext to the character and his world, which render impossible any simplistic reading of Dredd as a hero.
Why Americans Can’t Write Dredd
The first thing any smart fan of Judge Dredd will tell you is that he’s not a hero. Sure, you can be seduced by his cool look, his motorcycle, and the unhesitating violence with which he dispatches thugs and murderous criminals. But he’s a policeman who’s empowered to sentence and execute criminals on the spot. He’s famous for saying, “I am the Law!” He is an enforcer for a fascistic city-state, and we think of him as a hero because the people he’s killing tend to be far worse. When you’re killing terrorists, mass murderers, and drug-dealing gangsters, it’s hard not to feel that the ends justify the means.
Americans, in particular, seem often to miss this subtext. It’s an often perplexing oddity, especially to the rest of the world, that those who seem to speak so frequently and so passionately about freedom and constitutional rights also seem so rapidly and completely seduced by powerful figures who gleefully compromise these same freedoms and rights in the name of some greater good – and sometimes even in the name of these freedoms.
We celebrate those, whether as government agents or as vigilantes, real or fictional, who bend or violate the law in the name of stopping “the bad guy.” It’s there in 24. It’s there in Taken. It’s there in every Steven Segal movie ever made. Why, it’s there in Inglourious Basterds, in which torturing and killing surrendered Nazis is okay because, well, they’re Nazis. It’s there in the American frontier, which we’re taught to see as a story of brave individuals, carving out order on a lawless landscape.
It’s there too in American comics, dominated by tales of masked vigilantes who routinely break into private buildings, beat and kill criminals without trials, and spy or wiretap without warrants, imposing order on those the law cannot.
No wonder, then, that Americans don’t seem to understand that the Law enforced by Judge Dredd is at best a necessarily evil. Or that Dredd himself is a fascistic icon as well as, quite often, a hero.
Yet it’s precisely this tension that makes Judge Dredd unique as a character. And while this tension is usually subtextual, many of the most celebrated Dredd tales address this aspect more directly. Strip this element from him, and Dredd’s just a futuristic Dirty Harry in a weird get-up – only deprived of conflict with his superiors, who instead endorse (and have in fact codified) his every violent deed.
No wonder Americans rarely seem capable of writing Dredd well. They’re conditioned to think the appeal is solely that Dredd’s a futuristic badass cop, spouting tough-guy lines. That appeal is certainly there, but it’s the fascistic implications, just under the surface, that make the character unique. To ignore this subtext is a little like thinking the appeal of Blade Runner is a cop coldly gunning down renegade androids.
Without this subtext, Dredd’s a second-rate American comic-book hero. With them, he’s a powerful, distinctly British one. One that, set in the United States, offers among other things a powerful commentary on American comics and American culture.
No wonder, then, that the 1995 adaptation of Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone, seemed so lackluster. It’s not a terrible movie, despite many groan-worthy elements. It’s simply an Americanization, which understands the appeal of its story as resting in its superficial elements, which are taken to be cool and entertaining on their own and are stripped of their original context and subtext.
Dredd, a British and South African production, doesn’t make the same mistake.
And this is very much to its credit, in a genre that prefers its heroes simplistic and uncomplicated. Iron Man films might star a drunk who routinely allows irresponsible villains to steal his technology of mass destruction, but we’re not supposed to notice. Nolan’s Batman films ethically collapse, when one realizes that Bruce has abandoned his father’s city-changing philanthropy and pursued a career as a vigilante that’s endangered his city. For Judge Dredd, however, such moral ambiguities are essential to the character.
Introducing Judge Dredd
Right from the start, the film introduces Dredd as morally ambiguous. In pursuing a car on his motorcycle, he seems largely unconcerned that the criminals are spraying machine-gun fire into traffic. His only focus is on catching the criminals. When the car he’s pursuing hits a pedestrian, who explodes in a bloody mess against the windshield, Dredd coldly notes the death of this “innocent” only as an excuse to use lethal force.
In our society, any well-trained policeman would immediately drop back, in order to avoid further machine-gun fire. Other policemen would redirect traffic, in order to get civilians out of the area. In many cities, police avoid high-speed chases even if it means the criminals go free precisely because civilians are so often killed during such chases, as the pedestrian is here. (The Other Guys even parodies the damage caused by unrealistic, single-minded movie chase scenes.)
True, Dredd’s police force is depicted as undermanned, relative to our own, which might preclude slower approaches such as cutting off traffic or setting up roadblocks. But there’s no avoiding the fact that Dredd shares some culpability here; he seems to see his task only as the pursuit of criminals, rather than the protection of innocents all around him, and the two are demonstrably not the same.
Dredd then fires on the car, causing it to overturn and slide towards civilians, who seem to escape in time. Of course, he could not have known this would happen, and we might not be so inclined to forgive him, had the overturned car careened into a family.
The only criminal who survives the crash then goes on a shooting rampage through a shopping mall, and we’re treated to images of many people fleeing in panic and to several others lying dead on the mall’s floor.
At this point, by the terms applied to our own police officers, Dredd has failed miserably; his actions have led to a massacre. Were he part of any remotely competent police force, as we define it, he would face an investigation, during which he would probably be suspended. Instead, there’s no sign that he’s acting off-policy, and he coldly strolls through the shopping mall until he finds the criminal – whom he kills, in a completely unnecessary act of sadism, with a “hot shot” from his adaptable gun that thus delivers the murderer an agonizing (but visually exciting) death.
Of course, the hostage he has saved – and for whom he shows little consideration – thanks him. He has, after all, saved her life. But he created the situation that endangered her life in the first place, and he seemed perfectly willing to risk that she be shot, so long as he could “get his man.” He doesn’t comfort her or tell her she’s welcome.
The sequence accomplishes multiple objectives at once. Of course, it introduces Judge Dredd, giving us a bit of opening action that shows us how the Judges’ operate, how Dredd’s gun works, and gives us a glimpse of quotidian life in Mega City One. The sequence also establishes the drug Slo-Mo, used by the criminals in the car. But it also establishes, without shoving them in the viewer’s face, the ethical issues central to Judge Dredd – and this thematic thread will continue throughout the film.
Dredd and RoboCop
Especially for American viewers, the introductory sequence perhaps recalls no mainstream film more than it does RoboCop, which also features a cold and violent police officer in a dystopian near future. RoboCop works for an amoral corporation that has taken over Detroit’s government, reflecting a spiritually corrupt and rabidly capitalist culture. Both that film and Dredd feature extreme and stylized violence, relative to their times. (Both Dredd comics and RoboCop also feature parodic elements that undercut this violence, although such elements have fallen somewhat out of fashion in “serious” works and are, perhaps for this reason, not included in Dredd.) And like Judge Dredd, the RoboCop formula fails when its fascist subtext is ignored or removed. It is, in this regard, perhaps the closest American equivalent to Judge Dredd.
The correlation between RoboCop and Dredd is perhaps no stronger than at the end of the sequence that introduces Dredd. We see a cleaning machine approaching a body on the shopping mall floor, while a loudspeaker announces when shopping will resume. No acknowledgement is made of the human lives ended there, nor (based on the announcement) do we presume one is expected.
It’s a spectacular illustration of dehumanization mixed with commerce – a primary theme of RoboCop but not of Dredd. This isn’t Dredd failing to control its themes, however. Rather, it’s an attempt to invoke in the viewer an understanding of how debased this society is, in regards to its regard for human life and the individual.
Some who may not have recognized Dredd’s own disregard for human life might well be reached by this juxtaposition of that disregard with capitalism. All one also has to realize is that Dredd, like RoboCop, is himself an enforcer of this same system and its values.
Dredd as Morality Play
There are plenty other indications of the ethical questionability of the Judge system. For example, when Dredd and Anderson arrive at the Peach Tree block, we learn that vagrancy is a crime. The vagrant (in a touch that would be at home in RoboCop) holds a sign promising that he’s willing to degrade himself for food, a further indication of the commodification of human life. Human dignity appears to be a foreign concept. In dealing with the vagrant, Dredd and Anderson reference no alternative for the homeless, such as (say) a homeless shelter. This may seem unthinkably inhuman, until we realize that many American cities have followed similar paths. Later, the same vagrant is killed, a fact which seems to concern neither Dredd nor Anderson.
The first ethical turning point occurs when Dredd orders Anderson to execute an unarmed man – literally, given his horrific injuries. Of course, the man has previously tried to kill Dredd and Anderson. He is also so injured that his death might be considered a mercy killing. But Anderson hesitates.
The film thus acknowledges the ethical implications of the situation. There’s no avoiding that this is an ethical turning point. It’s worth noting, however, how often other cinematic “heroes” execute wounded villains without any such hesitation or other ethical acknowledgement on the part of the film.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t provide some convenient distraction to avoid the problem. Nor does it deteriorate into soppy dialogue that, while in tune with the audience’s morality, is at odds with the characters and the society the film has otherwise depicted. Instead, Anderson does as she’s told.
She’s only following orders.
Her hesitation is entirely understandable, even in such a society. Her compliance is entirely understandable too, and it’s hard not to wonder if we’d have the courage to act differently.
After all, her action is entirely ethical, according to her society. (So too, arguably, were those of the S.S.) Failure to comply would have jeopardized or destroyed her dream of becoming a Judge, and she doesn’t seem to have a fall-back plan.
This kind of depiction of an alien system of ethics is a great deal of what made the relaunched Battlestar Galactica interesting, although it often pulled its punches. That an action movie doesn’t is remarkable. It can’t have tested well in focus groups.
Later, we see this dead man’s widow and child in their apartment – although only Anderson makes the connection. It’s a convenient coincidence and one of the film’s few weak points – though the coincidental nature of the meeting is lessened somewhat by her statement that her husband is guarding the same area.
It’s easy to see that Anderson is disturbed by the recognition that she’s executed this woman’s husband – a fact made all the more pathetic by the fact that the widow helps the Judges in order to get them out of the area and thus potentially spare her husband’s wife.
Even a thug serving a gang leader has a family, and there’s no sign that he’s a bad father – especially given the smiling photos in their apartment. This is a radical acknowledgement for an action movie, in which “bad guy” goons are often killed by the hundreds, with no indication that this carries any moral remainder.
But this also suggests something deeper: that the dead thug, who seems to be a good father, might have only become a thug due to the circumstances of the ghetto in which he lived – a place effectively without police, ruled by a gang lord, and without other visible means of providing for one’s family.
Later, Anderson is placed in another position, in which Dredd asks her to sentence a criminal. Believing she has failed her evaluation anyway, she chooses to let the criminal go. Having said she wants to be a Judge to make a difference, she now says that sparing this man might be the only difference she’s able to make.
In a more sentimental film, this could feel syrupy. But it’s done quickly, without violins. And it’s hard to accuse a film’s depiction of a character as being overly sentimental, after it’s had her execute an unarmed man.
Her words about making a difference, instead of syrupy, come off as profound. Nothing Dredd and Anderson will do will fix the lives of those in Peach Tree block. Even if they are successful, another gang leader could replace Ma-Ma, the film’s head villain. Indeed, her rule was preceded by wars between multiple gangs, so violence may well increase in the void left by her absence. It’s very hard to know if one has truly helped, in the long run, in any situation remotely as complicated as those in real life. To be ethical is to acknowledge such complexity.
But sparing a man, who does not seem to be bad, has a purity all its own. It may not be possible to know what he makes of his life, if he was happy or if he added to the net thriving of those who encountered him. But he has that chance now, and there is a purity and a beauty and a clarity to that, no matter how small it may be in the bigger picture.
The arrival of four corrupt Judges may rightly be called one of the film’s weaker elements, in that this corruption isn’t foreshadowed, and it’s not entirely clear how Ma-Ma knew which Judges to call, especially because we’ve been told that Judges don’t visit the block often. The four corrupt Judges can feel like yet another obstacle to throw in the way of Dredd and Anderson, and they don’t significantly change the plot, to which they’re simply not integral.
However, the four corrupt Judges do continue the film’s ethical thread. In the comics, Dredd has encountered corrupt Judges numerous times, and these encounters have played a part in his slowly evolving doubt of the Judge system. While we’ve seen several instances of how the Judge system and the society of Mega City One don’t comply with our ethics, we haven’t yet seen any indication that the Judge system might not comply with its own ethics.
This is an important but subtle point. In the end, after the climax in which the villainous Ma-Ma is killed, Anderson acknowledges that she’s failed her evaluation and departs. According to the rules, which Dredd has listed for her and for viewers, this is indisputably the case. Yet Dredd (predictably, it must be said) tells the Chief Judge that Anderson has passed.
We may guess that he’s bonded with her, over the harrowing events of the film. And he’s certainly seen her skill in the field. But it’s also the case that Dredd has seen corruption within the Judges, and it’s hard to imagine that this doesn’t contribute to his decision to violate their code.
In accordance with the way the stoic Dredd changes only slowly in the comics, his choice at the end isn’t a revelation. He doesn’t go rogue or turn against the Judge system. Nothing so melodramatic. Instead, he lies once. And his closing narration is subtly changed from his opening narration, reflecting a change of emphasis or a slight shift in his values.
Yet for Anderson – and for those she may go on to help – such a single word might make all the difference.
Ethically, Dredd has betrayed his code and may even be guilty of a crime. His infraction is smaller than that of the four rogue Judges, who also betrayed their code, but it is of the same type. Morally, however, Dredd has placed a good person over his rigid ethical code.
It’s a crack in his worldview, not a shattering of it. But it’s this difference, while subtle, that frames the entire film – suggesting that it ought to be key to our interpretation.
Dredd only looks like an action movie. It delivers on that score, blending beauty and violence with the best of such films.
Its subtext, in accordance with the comics, is an examination of power and authority, of society and the individual, and perhaps of the fascistic impulse inherent in super-heroes and other action heroes.
But at its heart, Dredd is a morality play. And perhaps an illustration of how people usually change not through grandiose epiphanies but through a series of doubts, a series of word choices, a series of minor, subtle shifts.
Next time, we’ll look at how Dredd solves its narrative challenges in ways that add layers of meaning to the film.