Last year, I interviewed filmmaker José Padilha, who had at that point only recently been announced as director of next year's new 'RoboCop' movie. Naturally, in this age of vapid re-boots, I was concerned that the humour and political commentary of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic might be lost, with the film re-tooled as a straight action movie. A fear he swiftly countered, saying:
“The satire element of RoboCop is, I think, needed today... That kind of social, aggressive satire I haven’t seen done well in movies lately. And it’s almost like the politics and violence in the world is asking for this: 'Someone please make some satire now!' So we’re going to keep that edge.”He is entirely right: the world - with its financial meltdown, government austerity measures, resurgence of right-wing politics and rapidly advancing technology - is practically begging for something like a vintage Verhoeven movie. We sorely needed a 'RoboCop' or 'Starship Troopers' to come along and savagely poke fun of things, whilst also shamelessly indulging in ultra-violence and gore for our entertainment. An old-school 18-rated science fiction movie, the like of which we haven't really seen since the '12A' certificate was ushered in by comic book movies a decade ago.
Yet, ironically, a comic book adaptation has beaten Padilha to the punch. With the Brazilian's film still nearly a year from release, British television director Pete Travis has swooped in from left-field to deliver all of the above with 'Dredd' - based on 2000AD's Judge Dredd series. Here Karl Urban dons the helmet of the titular fascistic "street judge" in a dystopian future, in a film which is deliciously satirical, whilst also being horrifically and uncompromisingly violent. Like a Verhoeven movie of old, the high-minded political business is indistinguishable from the exploitative, sickeningly fun action stuff. It's funny and sleazy and rarely subtle, with well choreographed action and a tight, disciplined structure. Yet Alex Garland's screenplay is also pretty smart once you get past some (perhaps intentionally) cringe-inducing one-liners.
Dredd himself - a cop, judge, jury and executioner (for those unfamiliar with the character) - is an uncompromising individual, obsessed with enforcing the law to the letter and without question or a shred of compassion. He is a walking Daily Mail column with fire-power, free to threaten the most vulnerable in society from an assumed position of moral authority: he harasses the homeless and sees every law-breaker as nothing more than a scumbag beneath contempt and, often, in need of a good state-sponsored murdering. Yet Garland and Travis tip us off to the fact that we shouldn't necessarily be uncomplicatedly on-side with the protagonist in a number of ways.
The most obvious is the fact that they give us a rather more relatable and warm character in the form of rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who goes through the movie questioning and undermining her superior's harsh methods and views on society - even going against the rules to spare a criminal's life. Being from the slums herself, and from a marginalised community of psychic mutants, Anderson is less quick to (literally) judge those who transgress the law. Perhaps her psychic abilities give her more empathy than her sociopathic colleagues? What's more, in stark contrast to the unflappable Dredd, she feels remorse at having to kill. As well as Anderson, we're are also given plenty of other reasons to be suspicious of this world's justice system.
For instance, it's clear that giving police the power to murder criminals on sight has not acted as a deterrent against violent crime. In fact, we see that the Judges of Mega-City One are only able to respond to a small percentage of the crimes occurring at any given time. We also see how those fleeing from the cops of this world have little choice but to resort to all out warfare with the authorities. With no chance of reprieve, or anything like a considered trial, the drug dealers and pimps of this reality take to unloading their sub-machine guns and mowing down pedestrians as soon as they see Dredd in their rear-view mirror. If this wasn't a clear enough critique of right-wing ideology, then the scene in which Dredd and Anderson go to arrest a man for being homeless - only to barely react as he's pulverised by a huge mechanical door - is a pretty clear indication of how skewed the "good guys" of this movie are, from a moral standpoint.
Then there's the fact that Lena Headey's crime boss, Ma-Ma, is pretty clearly a victim of repeated sexual abuse and a drug addict. She's pretty cruel, guilty of lots of bloody crimes and seems to take sadistic pleasure in skinning her victims alive, but she's not uncomplicatedly "evil". She's undoubtedly messed up, yet she arguably needs sectioning rather than murdering. And her major vice is arguably less socially harmful than the law's reaction to it: her gang is responsible for putting a new drug called Slo-Mo on the streets - a chemical which causes the user to experience this grey, concrete world in glittery, multi-coloured slow-motion. It actually seems pretty appealing in context.
Where the movie really shines is that this high-minded and timely political commentary is ever-present without being heavy-handed or suffocating how much sheer fun the movie is. The action is brutal and bloody in a way you really don't see any more - even in stuff like 'The Expendables', which exists solely as a throwback to that 1980s action era. It's handled imaginatively, never gets repetitive and there are plenty of clever twists along the way. It's also fantastic that the premise of this movie is so small-scale: basically, our "heroes" get trapped in a gang-controlled skyscraper and have to fight there way to the boss at the penthouse - much like you might in a 90s SEGA arcade brawler. In many ways it's like a feature adaptation of 'Streets of Rage 2', in a very good way.
This is, in effect, the movie Padilha seemed to promise last year, when talking up his handling of 'RoboCop'. That film, however good it may turn out to be, is no longer being released in a vacuum. Arguably, 'Dredd' is the strongest mainstream action-satire film since 'Starship Troopers' in 1997 and one of the year's biggest surprises.
'Dredd' is out in UK cinemas now, rated '18' by the BBFC.