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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
When DREDD came out in 2012, not one of the many indie investor groups or Lionsgate knew how to market it.
They just had no idea.
So they made their movie poster look like retread of a 2003 Marvel movie movie that, thanks to its major stars (Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner) was a famously massive box office failure (DAREDEVIL) as opposed to an obscure one.
Consider the incompetence of such a decision. You are rebooting from a 1995 movie that, thanks to its major stars (Sylvester Stallone, Diane Lane) was a famously massive box office failure (JUDGE DREDD), so to get beyond that you choose to market your movie to actually look like another famous box office failure.
Everything you are doing to promote and sell your movie is based on previous failures.
Then you add a movie trailer that imitates all of the action movie trailers of its era, leaving your movie without an identity.
Nobody reading this would be so dumbfoundingly foolish, right?
Yet there we are.
So what about the movie?
It begins with opening narration, which is rarely any good, but at least it's brief and it's not someone reading text off the screen.
This is a story about Mega-City One. A new chaos growing on the corpse of the old Cursed Earth. There are over 800 million people within the walls of Mega-City One. The only thing that keeps the chaos at bay are the Judges.
More than cops, in a city with such overwhelming odds, Judges are also jury and executioners. It's a job that assigns the utmost trust to mere human beings. So these humans have to be decisively trained nearly from birth to be more than human.
The population lives in the ruins of the old cities before the merge, but also in high rise Mega Blocks towering a kilometer or more into the sky. Each Mega Block within Mega-City is a fully contained city within a city: Hence the name.
With such oppressively overwhelming everything in this ugly future, some judges make names for themselves. Not because they want to, it's just that in every group there are those who sink, those who stagnate, and those who rise.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban: THE TRUTH ABOUT DEMONS, GHOST SHIP, THE LORD OF THE RINGS [all], THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, DOOM, STAR TREK [2009 - all], AND SOON THE DARKNESS, PRIEST, ALMOST HUMAN [TV], THOR: RAGNAROK, THE LOFT, BENT, THE BOYS [TV]) is known for being the least merciful Judge, but also the most fair. His reputation is not only as an enforcer of the law, but an embodiment of the law itself. According to writer creator John Wagner, Judge Dredd is a nearly criminally hardcore good guy, born years before 1979's MAD MAX. Whether MM creators Miller, McCausland, and Kennedy knew of JUDGE DREDD, I don't know, but apparently the late 70s were ripe for such stories.
Instead of going into historical minutia, let me just say that through Alex Garland (28 DAYS LATER, EX MACHINA) and his excellent screenplay, this DREDD is explained through action and as little dialog as possible.
DREDD begins with everything we need to know of this world. Some guys in an old van are speeding from a crime through the Mega-City, while taking narcotics at the same time. We see that reality slows for them as they inhale.
The drug is called Slo-Mo. Its spreading throughout the Mega-City and wreaking havoc. Reality slows for the user as their synaptic firings go turbo, but that doesn't mean it increases their metabolic rate or muscle reflexes.
If you're experiencing happiness, excitement, or pleasure, it seemingly stretches that momentary sensation out thousands of times over as each second becomes a minute. If you are experiencing pain, you feel that times a thousand.
Many users, while under the drug, think they can do everything faster as they see the world move in Slow Motion. That doped up sensation is wrong and it can get them killed. Imagine experiencing the pain of a deadly car wreck slowed down 1,000 times and immediately realizing you can do nothing about it. Your body is going to be agonizingly crushed in a fraction of a second that, to your Slo-Mo consciousness, will last hours.
When the bad guys realize they are being chased by a judge, their impaired reaction is to kill him. This winds up being a costly mistake on their part.
Investigating the dead criminals leads to a 200 story slum-tower Mega-Block called Peach Trees. Like all such situations, only a single judge is dispatched to bring law and justice to an entire building housing hundreds of thousands of people and Judge Dredd is called to perform the duty. The potential for violence and failure is staggering but the judges are so well trained that sending one judge is routine.
This alone tells the audience why someone who seemingly holds all the cards would crumble in the mere presence of a judge. It also tells us why someone would be willing to risk everything when faced with a Cop who carries such powers.
Because this dispatch appears commonplace, Judge Dredd is going in with a new recruit to evaluate her in action. Longtime fans of Judge Dredd will recognize the character of PSI-Judge Cassandra Anderson* (Olivia Thirlby: THE DARKEST HOUR, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT), a person who, as a child was recognized for her nascent pyschic and telepathic abilities and spent the rest of her life trained on how to use and enhance them.
Hardcore Judge Dredd is experienced with the Mega-City and its criminal element and makes it clear to Cassandra that he will stand by the very letter of the law during his evaluation. Failing his judgement doesn't simply mean Judge Anderson could be out of a job, but that she could go to prison.
That's not the worst of it. Failing to properly do your job as a Judge can be a death sentence and that's where the criminal block boss of Peach Trees comes in.
Her name is Madeline Madrigal (Lena Heady: GENTLEMEN DON'T EAT POETS, GOSSIP, BLACK PLAGUE, POSSESSION, RIPLEY'S GAME, THE CAVE, THE BROTHERS GRIMM, 300 [all], THE BROKEN, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES [TV], LAID TO REST, TELL TALE, GAME OF THRONES [TV], THE PURGE, MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES), known as the alleged and mysterious crime boss, Ma-Ma to the judges. What the judges don't know about the hidden, nearly apocryphal Ma-Ma, is that she is the source and sole distributor of Slo-Mo. That alone carries a death sentence. What's more, Ma-Ma is insanely ambitious and feels the growing popularity of her Slo-Mo will expand her power throughout the 800 million population of Mega-City One.
Already there are weaker bosses among the neighboring Mega-Blocks who are feeling her influence and crumbling before her rise.
Ma-Ma feels she's reached the stage where she's ready to step out of the shadows. The badge of a dead Judge will escalate her reputation, intimidating all crime bosses who might dare to cross her.
Naturally, between her entrenched tech and her informants, Ma-Ma has access throughout the inside of Peach Trees. So when she gets word that not one but two judges have entered her territory, she chooses Showdown over hiding.
Thanks to her skullduggery and high-tech minions, she can temporarily lock down Peach Trees, imprisoning the two judges within, so that they can't escape or even contact the Hall of Judges.
When Ma-Ma, hidden deep within the massive structure, discovers that she doesn't simply have any young judge, but the legendary Judge Dredd himself, she's over the moon with the idea that he will be her prize, and thinks nothing of sacrificing as many of her pawns as necessary to defeat him.
Dredd, however, is unstoppable. Ignoring, for the moment, that they are trapped, Dredd fights his way through assassins toward a low-level crime lord named Kay (Wood Harris: THE WIRE, SOUTHLAND TALES). Kay plays it innocent right up until the moment Anderson "reads" him. She not only knows who he really is, but now Anderson and Dredd know exactly where in the building Ma-Ma hides.
As Ma-Ma watches the Peach Tree monitors and sees Dredd suddenly go from wandering the lower levels to making a beeline for her, she knows he knows and that's when DREDD goes into bloody violent overdrive.
Despite the lack of any car chases, there is a MAD MAX ethos running through DREDD as seemingly thousands of armed people, through sheer force of numbers, come at Dredd and Anderson in waves.
Not all of them are Ma-Ma's loyal crew. Over the building comm Ma-Ma has threatened all that those who do not fight for her will be found and punished.
Since the Judges aren't superhuman, only well-trained, it would seem the movie is over before its begun. From the start however, we watch as untrained villains, loaded to the teeth with arms and munitions, are willing to spray bullets at everything, hoping that one finds its mark. Dredd and Anderson, however, are disciplined and coldly precise. Each one of their bullets will eliminate its target.
As I mentioned earlier, DREDD was poorly marketed and poorly sold. I didn't originally see it in the theaters, convinced by the movie trailers and poster that it would be hackneyed crap. I saw it by random chance long after home release and was utterly wowed! Urban and Thirlby did an outstanding believable job considering that these are Comic book characters.
Lena Headey, who is no stranger to playing bad ass roles, is the most brutal bad ass I've ever seen her play, going far beyond any of her TV roles and way beyond the hardcore roles of iconic Ripley, Croft, Alice, and Selene. Ma-Ma achieves a level so far only occupied by The Bride and Darling.