We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 19th entry, it’s judgement time as we journey to Mega-City One for the brutal, violent and gorgeous Dredd.
How We Failed It
Few films have everything going against it like Dredd initially did. It started out promising, though, especially for an independent film in a saturated comic book adaptation marketplace. It secured a $45 million budget, cast Karl Urban (well-known enough from his turn as Bones in the Star Trek films as the titular hero) and had a script from genre heavyweight Alex Garland, whose previous writing credits included 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go. Pete Travis, of the supremely underwhelming Vantage Point, signed on to direct, and production began in 2010.
Dredd, adapted from the 2000 AD comic book character (and made to erase the Sylvester Stallone headache Judge Dredd from our collective pop culture memory), takes place in a future where the world is a wasteland, with the remnants of humanity left in a large city structure called Mega-City One that stretches from Boston to Washington D.C. The law enforcement are Judges, police who act as judge, jury and executioner. The plot finds our titular bad-ass (Karl Urban) taking young psychic Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out on her first day on the job as a Judge, as they investigate a seemingly routine turf war homicide in an impoverished apartment block called Peach Trees. But, they quickly find themselves trapped and fighting against every criminal in the block as the crimelord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who is creating and dealing the new designer drug Slo-Mo (which does what it sounds like it does) wants them dead.
Dredd had a rocky production, with Garland providing more direction and creative control than Travis. This carried over into post-production, where executives were so unhappy with the footage that they banned Travis from editing. Garland once again took over the direction and guided the editing. It’s almost a wonder this film turned out so well, as Dredd almost has no right to be this great. But against all odds, it is amazing. Garland did seek a co-director credit but didn’t get awarded one as he hadn’t directed anything before. He was the creative force behind Dredd, though, and later proved his directorial chops with Ex Machina, one of the best gems of 2015.
Dredd had a dismal opening weekend of only $6 million domestically in wide release and would only top out $13 million domestically, with foreign markets only kicking it up to a $35 million worldwide take. The kicker here is that the budget was a massive $50 million. It was a box office failure. To be truthful, I was kind of part of the problem here. I didn’t have a chance to catch the film until it was in a dollar theater, and here’s a fun fact: dollar theaters have 3-D now! I sincerely regretted not seeing Dredd sooner and giving it more money.
The critical reaction is somewhat frayed. What didn’t help was that most major publications/critics like Roger Ebert didn’t publish a review, so most broad audiences didn’t get a yay or nay from critics they normally read, which left them on the fence and sitting at home. And the publications that did provide reviews were pretty split. Keith Phipps gave the film a D+, writing “…the film is mostly a bunch of flatly staged bits of action shot against anonymous backgrounds. (In 3-D. Because it’s 2012.) It’s 98 minutes of no fun and much gunfire, and though it’s true in some respects to the Dredd of the comics, the spirit of the original remains stubbornly on the page.”
Simon Abrams actually found the film admirable, stating “Dredd‘s real staying power comes from its creators’ abject refusal to spell things out. Dredd is a man of few words, so Garland makes the ones he has count, especially in his scenes with Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), his idealistic rookie partner. Still, scenes replicating the effect of slo-mo, a sense-enhancing drug peddled by slum lord Ma-Ma (the winning Lena Headey), show more clearly than any of the film’s ingratiatingly direct dialogue and compelling characterizations just why we root for Urban’s more-bad-than-good guy. As bullets rip through flesh, and bodies fall through the air accompanied by sparks of light and tinkling glass, Travis allows us to revel in amoral spectacle. Yes, it’s bad for you, but that’s what makes Dredd the hero the comic book film needs now, most of all.”
Mark Lisanti, however, did praise the film at the end of the year: “But Dredd, against all odds, was probably my most enjoyable moviegoing experience of the year, one of those borderline magical cinematic conversions where you enter the theater an ambivalent observer and leave it a crazy-eyed disciple, wanting nothing more than to spread the gospel, ring the bell outside the big-box store, drive around in the PT Cruiser with the shrink-wrapped image of Karl Urban’s clenched jaw. If you were unlucky enough to ask me “Seen anything good lately?” from late September on, you heard about it in the same exhausting breath as The Master.”
What also didn’t really help Dredd’s chances of making a lasting mark at the box office was that it came out a few months after the kneecap-shattering film The Raid: Redemption. Besides being probably the best action film this side of Die Hard, The Raid also had pretty much the same plot as Dredd: cops get trapped in a crimelord’s apartment block and have to fight their way out, floor by bloody floor. When the trailer for Dredd came out, I joked to a friend that the American remake for The Raid had happened quickly. The Raid was released in March, so most action fans had their appetites fed by the time Dredd hit theaters, no matter how well and fresh the film managed to do with this similar plot.
Why It’s Great
Dredd is a hyperviolent work of cinema that is all at once uncompromisingly brutal and undeniably beautiful to watch. A friend of mine accurately calls it the most gorgeous looking B-film ever made. The aesthetic of the world is lived in, grimy and punk. The low budget of this film turns into a strength, and it was shot in Johannesburg, borrowing a lot from Neill Blomkamp’s District 9; it really transports you to this world. Dredd creates an authenticity that makes this world feel real, transporting you immediately to Mega-City One.
Urban gives the quick impression that he’s the only person that could ever do the character of Judge Dredd justice, and the opening action scene is a terrific way to introduce the title character. He is in pursuit of some criminals high on Slo-Mo. Command comes through his communications. “Do you request backup?” He sternly just replies “NO.” With that “no,” Urban has provided everything you need to know about Dredd. He works alone, he’s an unfeeling machine of cold and violent justice. Dredd’s dialogue is just a wealth of action movie one-liners. Every other line is simultaneously profound and bad-ass with Urban’s grizzled voice. “Everything out there is the deep end.” A medical officer asks Dredd “You know how often we get a Judge up in Peach Trees?” He just replies “Well you got one now.” And of course a line such as “Ma-Ma’s not the law…I am the law” deserves to be put in some sort of Hall of Fame. Urban’s scowl, permanent frown and chin tell stories that dialogue just can’t. You never see the top half of his face, and you never have to. He’s having a cartoonish blast while playing it totally straight, a unique balance that transcends any sort of irony.
Olivia Thirlby is just as great as Anderson. She turns a thankless role into a memorable one, making her character’s arc feel believable. Lena Headey takes a stock villain like Ma-Ma and creates perhaps the best action villain this decade with her detached demeanor and cold interactions. She breathes life and soul into a cardboard cutout, creating a multi-faceted villain that is both entertaining and terrifying. Domhnall Gleeson is also featured in an early supporting role before a breakout 2015, and it’s clear back then that he was going places.
The slow-mo is a gimmick of the film, but an incredible one. In an age where slow motion feels so overused, Dredd finds a way to make it feel unique and exciting again. This is thanks to the work of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, using his talent and experience to make one of the cheapest camera techniques into something that feels illustrious and innovative to Dredd. The action is shot in inventive and exciting takes while retaining a clean sense of setting and continuity. The violence is as brutal and bloody as it gets and revels in this paradise of ultraviolence, finding ingenious new ways to top itself as the film progresses. Garland’s script is simple yet inventive, continually finding new challenges and avenues to guide the Die Hard formula of the plot. The blood is heavily embedded in CGI, yet the artifice of it only seems to complement the fun of the whole film rather than drag it down. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score is a bass-driven, thumping gem of work that embodies the grimy, futuristic aesthetic in the electronic synths and drums.
Despite the poor box office return, few films are as deserving of a sequel as Dredd. Urban has repeatedly stated he would be down, and I would like to take the opportunity to state that I’d be the first to donate to a kickstarter. Recently, signs of hope have started to show, with Urban stating in an interview that talks for a sequel series have begun with a streaming service. I sincerely hope these talks progress into something tangible and that Alex Garland is involved. If Dredd is what we get when he directs from the backseat, imagine the possibilities of handing the reigns solely to him.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.