Dreddful politics in enjoyable action film

November 17, 2012

Directed by Peter Travis
Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey & Wood Harris
In cinemas now

As far as action movies go, Dredd deserves to be praised as an enjoyable example of the genre. However, the only way progressive-minded people will be able to stomach it is to avoid thinking about the political implications of the world of Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban).

Set in a future anarchic, post-apocalyptic United States, the movie focuses on the incorruptible Dredd, one of the toughest members of the heavily armed and brutal police force known as judges. The judges have the powers of “judge, jury and executioner”, and are presented as a force of “order in the chaos”.

Dredd is tasked with assessing idealistic rookie judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who wants to use her psychic abilities to “make a difference” to society.

The assessment mission goes wrong when a violent drug gang traps the two in a huge residential complex, forcing them to fight their way out.

The judges’ role is shown in all its horrifyingly reactionary glory ― Dredd hands out summary jailings and executions of the poor without hesitation. The dead are carted off for “recycling” with utter indifference.

Mercifully, however, the film does not go out of its way to justify the situation. Based on the British comic series first published in 2000AD magazine, the film is set up to simply accept the situation as a given, and focuses its attention on the spectacular (and highly gory) action.

This makes it possible to enjoy the film despite the reactionary elements.

For those looking for political rays of light in the reactionary gloom, it is possible to read a subtle critique of the role of judges.

The most obvious moment is when a corrupt judge tells Dredd the city is a “meat grinder” where “people go in one end and meat comes out the other”. The judges’ role in this, he says, is to “turn the handle”. Dredd has no answer to this except to keep shooting, seemingly validating the comment.

Likewise, Anderson’s “assessment” shows how people must be brutalised to be able to function as a judge.

Despite being the hero, Dredd is totally unrelatable as a character. Half of his face is permanently covered by a helmet for the whole film, with his emotions expressed through variations of his permanent scowl. His status as the ultimate Clint Eastwood-style hard-ass is another of the film’s unquestioned facts, and his motivations and background go unexplored.

Although his dry sense of humour is a likable feature, Dredd comes off as a deeply alienated person.

The film is best thought of as a guilty pleasure, enjoyable as long as viewers switch off their political radars.

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