It’s a hot day in Wallasey, sometime in the mid 90s. My little brother and I take shelter from the oppressive heat in John Menzies, what is now W.H. Smiths. True to the instinct that still tends to dictate my actions when walking into bookshops today, I walk immediately to the section labelled “graphic novels.”
I’m a weird kid, at this point; regularly treated with derision or contempt by primary school classmates and teachers for my almost obsessive love of Batman comics, Batman movies, the Batman animated series. (The same thing would later happen in high school, when I became a pro wrestling fan.) The strange thing is that it’s considered reasonably okay (though not cool) at my school to like the Beano or the Dandy, but – Batman? That’s too childish, somehow, in spite of the urban setting, in spite of the violence and adult themes that were permeating 90s comics. Dennis the Menace bullying Walter, or the hideous Bash Street Boys bullying their classmates, or Desperate Dan bullying everybody? Fine. Batman breaking up a coke dealing gang? Daft, even to an 8 year old.
Actually, I now realize that, like pro wrestling, it’s too American. British people have never “got” superheroes the way Americans have. They’re too grand, too ostentatious, too good to be true, too ridiculous. Even my childhood self never really had any real connection with also-rans like the Green Lantern, the Hulk, Spawn or Iron Man – you had to be one of the Big Two, Batman or Superman to catch my attention in a meaningful way. But that’s fine, because there’s plenty of Batman to go around.
So there I am, sitting on the floor in the aisle of Menzies, flicking through the trade paperbacks. Which are, this being the 90s, mainly crappy crossovers with poor art… but whatever, cool. Batman is fighting Captain America, Batman is fighting Spawn, Batman is fighting Superman, Batman… Batman…
Batman is getting the shit kicked out of him by Judge Dredd.
And arrested, and unmasked, and thrown in an isocube. And Dredd doesn’t even break a sweat.
And the art isn’t crap. It’s weird, and it’s a bit scary to a kid used to John Byrne or Alan Davis, but it’s not crap. And the writing, though deliberately over the top and silly, is sharp and witty, with a knowing irony to it.
Still. Judge Dredd just filled Batman in. Informed him of who the boss was. Just beat his blue nappy-wearing arse down.
I close the book and leave the shop.
Last Saturday, it was another hot day in Wallasey. I’m an adult, now. Pro wrestling died for me with Eddie Guerrero, and my love of comics has faded in the last year – Warren Ellis has been writing a novel, Garth Ennis has been writing a film, Alan Moore has been doing everything but comics, Grant Morrison’s Superman just isn’t clicking with me. More so, the corporatisation and mainstreaming of geek culture has raised nothing but bile and contempt in me – someone, somewhere, in between my putting down Judgment on Gotham and today, realized that geeks are geeks because they’re addicted, and realized that if they could cut the corners off this shit and polish it up, they could make everyone addicted and get filthy rich. Much like a smack dealer who clocks the fact he can water down his dose and spread it to more fiends, who need to buy more in turn because of the watered down dosage – that is the current manufacturing ethic of Disney, Time Warner, Sony and Marvel Films.
Hence some of the aforementioned also-ran superheroes getting films, and these films actually making fucking money. I mean, did anyone really need a Thor film? Did anyone crave Mickey Rourke slicing up Formula 1 cars with his electro-bondage whips? And is anyone with a functioning mind and a sense of self-respect anything but repulsed by the openly-viral internet marketing of these cinematic abortions?
So really, the last thing you’d expect the 24 year old me to be doing on this hot Autumn day is walking to see a comic book movie. And if I was doing that, the last thing you’d expect me to be feeling is excitement, to the point of being struggling to contain myself. Especially if the last film I’d seen at the cinema had actually been The Dark Knight Rises, which I found depressing. That had Batman being beaten up, too, with none of the style or comic timing employed by Messrs. Grant and Bisley.
But there I am, almost skipping, to see Dredd. Because in the years hence, I’ve really clicked with this character. What seemed frightening to me as a child is fucking hilarious to me as an adult. The cynical, almost nihilistic satirical tone of the Dredd comics has hit a chord with me as I’ve grown more political, more apathetic, more evil, more British than I was as a peculiar pre-pubescent, and left little room for any emotional bond with the American superheroes that are now crammed down everyone’s throat by bloodsucking multimedia companies who still won’t give Jack Kirby’s family his fucking money.
Which is a really roundabout way of saying that this is not a review that can be trusted. There’s too much emotion going on here, and too much backstory, for me to put my prejudices aside and judge (heh) Dredd entirely on its own merits. I confess that I (even while fully expecting the film to be terrible) have been wanking over the release date of this film just as feverishly as the Nolan freaks have been over TDKR. I’ve become everything I’ve hated, and though I’ll endeavour, I can’t be expected to come to a proper critical evaluation.
I’m reminded of another time Dredd and Batman mixed it up – the day I went to see Batman Forever with my aunt, I could have gone to the Stallone Judge Dredd with my uncle, a huge 2000AD fan. He came out with the expression I’ve seen on many a “geek” since the comic book movie explosion: faintly grinning, enthusing… but without emotion. Eyes dead; expression painted on. The gaze of the junkie, having just been sold junk that was 2% as advertised and 98% whatever the dealer found underneath his car seat. I’m not that far gone, I don’t think, and if I detect I’ve become that person, I’ll put a Lawgiver to my head.
All that in mind, I think I should go through what I didn’t like about Dredd, or its limitations, rather than jumping straight in with the praise.
First is that this is not the definitive Dredd film. It couldn’t be. The scope, which in the comic spreads from the irradiated Cursed Earth, to Brit-Cit, to outer space, to time travel, to parallel universes, is too narrow. The whole film is set in one city block, over the course of one day, and in this sense, even the Stallone movie comes closer to the span of Dredd’s world.
Second, is that it isn’t quite silly enough to be a thoroughly representative adaptation of the works of Alan Grant, John Wagner, Pat Mills et al. It plays itself straight and leaves room for inference, rather than reaching out and punching you in the face with its satire as a Paul Verhoeven film might (and really, we’re never going to get the definitive Judge Dredd film unless Mr Verhoeven agrees to direct it). In this way, weirdly, the Stallone version again comes up trumps – its key failure wasn’t that it was ludicrous, but that it lacked any irony. This version, starring Karl Urban as the titular character, has irony, but lacks the ludicrousness of the comic.
But we don’t appreciate films by how well they’ve uploaded the source material to the screen, we critique them on whether they work on their own merits. Blade Runner, Die Hard, even The Godfather have pretty glaring downfalls as book adaptations. Watchmen doesn’t. And yet the first three are excellent films, whereas Watchmen is filthy arse gravy not fit for human consumption.
This in mind, Dredd does reasonably well. The aesthetic, for starters, is fascinating. Mega-City One holds up in comparison with the London of Children of Men and the Johannesburg of District 9 in the strikingly realistic urban sci-fi stakes. But whilst Alfonso Cuaron and Neil Blomkamp shamelessly appropriate Balkan and Soweto imagery, respectively, Pete Travis seems to have taken the uglier, bleaker, concrete aspects of the American and African metropolis and extrapolated them (which, it must be said, is a very 2000 AD thing to do), limiting his incorporation of the same kind of South African slum photography as D9 to the opening and closing spanning shots. The resulting fictional city is unnervingly familiar whilst being alien and distant, in a way that Blade Runner must have seemed to audiences in the 80s when it made the innovation that the future might not be any cleaner or smoother than the present. The dim, grime-encrusted corridors of Peach Trees, the humorously named city block where Dredd and telepathic rookie judge Anderson do battle against the druglord Ma-Ma, suggest a run-down slum motel combined with an abandoned military complex, a setting which charges the film with energies of oppression and claustrophobia.
Anderson, played by Oliva Trilby is the real protagonist, the character the audience identifies with. Which is exactly how it should be, as Dredd is not what you might call a relatable comic book character character. He’s not a tortured wealthy socialite pushing himself beyond human limits to make himself a superhero, or a teenager with powers trying to balance his dual identities, or a weapons designer trying to make amends. He is the faceless embodiment of penal violence, or even fascism, the essence of a hardcore action hero distilled and stripped down to its core element and unleashed upon an unsuspecting array of criminals.
In a century where Clint Eastwood is talking to empty chairs and the 80s guard are farting around slapping each other on their wrinkly backs in The Expendables, where Matt Damon and Liam Neeson can survive and even thrive as action stars without difficulty, where Chow Yun Fat’s career went from bad to worse when he left Hong Kong and The Rock’s career never really got started, Rock’s Doom co-star Karl Urban looks and feels like the real deal as Dredd. Armed with a far more convincing and coherent Eastwood-esque growl than Christian Bale’s lamentable drivel as Batman, and partaking in slow motion sequences that take the Matrix bullet-time concepts and force them to confront their brutal Peckinpah origins, he bludgeons his way through the film in a way that his contemporaries must long to do, or be allowed to do. His nasty and sustained beating of a suspect, his smashing someone in the windpipe and leaving them to wheeze to death, his silently throwing a henchman over a balcony to send a dispassionate message to his enemies… these feel like they don’t belong in a time of more liberalized and introspective Hollywood thrillers than in years past. They’re genuinely quite shocking. Good – the irony here is that Judge Dredd, a British concept designed to parody American politics, has produced the most hard-hitting and workable American action flick in years.
That’s kind of typical of Dredd, though. Garth Ennis once commented that the reason he could never care about American superheroes was that their publishers would never have the courage to put them into the positions to make the sort of decisions 2000 AD forced Dredd to contend with. Batman can fanny around with non-lethal boomerangs and tear gas, but Dredd isn’t fighting the Penguin in Gotham City; he lives in a place so big and terrible he and his comrades in arms can only respond to 6% of the crimes committed, and thus end up dealing with the most vicious, dangerous and deranged individuals in fiction. They regularly fail and die, and the only reason Dredd survives is that he’s tougher and crueller. Smarter, too, and more resourceful, but he mainly gets by, as Ma-Ma observes, through being a real piece of work.
This anarchic freedom for the writers of Dredd’s comics came from the punk rock ethic of 2000 AD (it even made its début in 1977), and the relative (to most comic book adaptations) freedom of scriptwriter Alex Garland to stick whatever sick shit he likes in the film likewise results from the lack of a huge budget or a well-defined expectant audience. Whilst the fan in me is fantasizing about a sequel, the realist hopes there’s some financial flaw in this movie’s DNA make-up that stops it from becoming a successful franchise. A Daily Mail review once said that an idea as good as democracy deserves a television show as great as BBC’s The Thick of It. Well, an idea as threatening and dangerous as fascism deserves a comic as masterfully perceptive, irreverent and cutting edge as Judge Dredd, and that comic deserves a film that isn’t primarily a money making exercise.
Whilst Dredd certainly has the relentless bleakness of its comic counterpart, and the same dark humour (a tramp holding a “will debase self for credits” sign was a personal favourite), it’s at its heart a good, stylish, grimy, dystopian thriller with the 2000 AD elements generally little more than dressing that, admittedly, raise it a few notches. There are reasons to go and see it, and even get excited about it – but there are more and better reasons to just grab some old progs and read the Apocalypse War, the Cursed Earth saga, the battles with the Dark Judges. Nothing makes you feel like you’ve been born in the wrong generation than paying £7.50 for a movie ticket and £1.50 for stupid 3D glasses with the knowledge those old issues would have once set you back no more than about 7 odd pence.
The geek in me was ecstatic. The perhaps further-sighted, critical side of me is conflicted about where Dredd can go from here without moving further into the aforementioned consumerisation of cult.
It’s peculiar that, all these years later, Dredd is still challenging and perturbing me… as well, of course, as beating the shit out of Batman, budget and audience be hanged.
Laurence Thompson is an English writer, currently working on the sequel of an award-winning independent film. He is almost certainly drunk.