Posts Tagged ‘Karl Urban’

Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

Read Full Post »

‘Judge Dredd is going onto the stairwell to confront his suspects. Anyone with a sensitive disposition should look away now.’ – John Wagner, Judge Dredd – On The Job

I don’t remember ever walking out of a film which I have paid to see; this is probably a result of desensitisation, informed choices of viewing, persistent optimism and (mostly) stinginess. Others are not so dedicated and I especially recall the way in which David Cronenberg’s Crash and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris managed to drive audiences out mid-showing. Usually, though, people walking from films is quite rare – so far as I notice these things – but my attention was caught by two people departing from Pete Travis’s Dredd round about the midway point. I wonder what it was about this film that impelled them to leave – quite how was this film different to their expectations? Did they go in on a whim, with no preconceptions as to what was coming? Or were they perhaps the two people in the world who actually enjoyed the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie, and had expected a remake?

(The need to put some distance between itself and the deservedly vilified 1995 movie is, presumably, the reason why this film doesn’t use the full title of the 2000AD comic strip it’s based on. Fair enough, but it’s still rather like releasing a Captain America movie just called America or a Superman movie just called Man. I suppose anyone who’s a Dredd fan will be sufficiently aware of the new movie for it not to make much difference.)

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I must be upfront and reveal I have followed the Judge Dredd comic strip for well over a quarter of a century; my shelves groan under the weight of nearly thirty volumes of collected editions of Dredd stories. So I’m the target audience for this film, and have awaited it with a considerable degree of anticipation. One big plus for this film is the casting: Karl Urban plays Dredd himself – a competent performer for this kind of film, but more significantly someone familiar enough with the strip to understand the importance of keeping his helmet on and his face covered throughout. You never see Judge Dredd’s face in the comic – it’s one of the things that the 1995 film disregarded and drew enormous flak for. The new movie seems more concerned with being faithful than being commercial, which is partly what makes it interesting.

Some time in the not too distant future, America has become an irradiated wasteland, with hundreds of millions of people crammed into Mega-City One, a hellish metropolis on the east coast. What order exists is maintained solely through the efforts of the Justice Department – the de facto government, consisting of ruthless, brutal Judges with the power of instant sentencing. Foremost amongst these is Judge Dredd (Urban), who spends his days cruising the streets on a machine-gun-toting motorbike, administering justice via the six types of special bullet his side-arm dispenses. As the film opens, Dredd is given a special assignment: the assessment of rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), whose fitness for duty is questionable, but whose mutant telepathic abilities could make her a useful asset. Their patrol takes them to Peach Trees, one of the city’s massive residential blocks. They discover the block is being run by vicious gang boss Ma Ma (Lena Headey) as a private fiefdom, and apprehend a suspect who could testify against her – but before they can drag him off for interrogation, Ma Ma seals the block and unleashes the local gangs against the two Judges…

At this point we should probably address the whole ‘Dredd and The Raid: Separated at Birth’ issue. Yes, there is a striking resemblance between the plots of these two films, and yes, they are both notable for some of the most intense, uncompromising violence seen in any recent action movie. But that’s really it: I really think this just an odd case of convergence rather than a conscious rip-off, and stylistically the films are very distinct (Dredd also owes something of a debt to Die Hard and Assault on Precinct 13). The Raid was a lean, stripped-down, almost raw piece of work, while Dredd is much more obviously stylish and designed – and while The Raid‘s violence was balletic and fluid, in Dredd it is crunching and weighty, almost industrial.

Perhaps this is the reason why the couple at the screening I went to decided on an early night, as this movie is a strong 18 and, as such, is considerably bloodier than the typical comic-book adaptation. Characters get skinned alive, set on fire and have their eyes gouged out on-screen, and there’s another startling sequence where more than one person gets a bullet through the face in slow motion. The evident care and attention which has gone into making these moments visually distinctive and, from a certain point of view, rather beautiful, suggests firstly that the director has a rather idiosyncratic outlook on life, and secondly that a lot of people are going to find this film deeply objectionable and quite possibly morally reprehensible.

But then I suppose this is just another demonstration of the movie’s fidelity to the comic, which was for many years driven by the tension between Judge Dredd’s dual role as both main character, and fascist enforcer of a totalitarian regime. For the most part the movie soft-pedals the latter element, but when it does address it, it does so with a much harder edge than the comic traditionally has: we see Judges summarily executing prisoners, and at one point Dredd embarks upon beating information out of a suspect. For me the film doesn’t have the knowing self-awareness of its own contradictions that the strip has in its best periods, but I suspect the makers were desperate to avoid appearing arch or self-mocking.

It’s interesting that the movie departs quite substantially from the detail of the comic, while still somehow retaining much of its essential tone. The movie dials the Mega-City’s weirdness and futuricity down to a startling degree: the vehicles and clothes could be contemporary a lot of the time, while the buildings and structures also have a contemporary look to them – very much a more Ron Smith take on the aesthetic than a Carlos Ezquerra one. Similarly, while the Dredd costume is instantly recognisable, it’s much more like an early Brett Ewins Dredd than the classic Mike McMahon visualisation of the character. There are lots of little changes to the background and characters, as well – most obviously, the comic’s swearing-avoidance technique of using made-up profanities like ‘Drokk!’ and ‘Stomm!’ is dispensed with – but also a lot of background in-jokes aimed solely at people like me. This is almost wholly confined to the set-dressing, though: Dredd strongly reminded me of Batman Begins in the way it takes a sprawling, often preposterous mythology and pares it down to something plausible and serious. For fans, it’s notable just what this movie doesn’t include: Dredd’s clone heritage, the origins of his world, any supporting characters other than Anderson, or indeed any of the major Dredd villains – none of these feature or are even mentioned.

And yet the character up on screen is indisputably the real Judge Dredd. I was a little dubious when I first heard that Karl Urban would be playing Dredd. Did he have the chin for the part? More importantly, would he sound like Dredd? At which point I realised I’d no idea what Dredd’s voice actually sounds like, but that I’d still know instantly if they got it wrong. Well, Urban pretty much gets it right, and not just the voice. To begin with I thought he was not quite laconic enough, or deadpan enough, but his performance definitely grew on me. Towards the end he was throwing people out of windows and declaring himself to be the law, and I realised that I’d bought into it completely: this is about as good a performance as Dredd as one can imagine.

I’m not so sure about the film’s version of Anderson, to be honest – Olivia Thirlby is pretty good, but beyond the fact she’s a blonde female telepath this is a different character from the one in the comic. (Anderson’s appearance has changed a lot in the thirty years she’s been in the strip – the Brett Ewins version in particular had a definite formative effect on my adolescent libido – but I don’t recall her ever looking much like Thirlby.) Nevertheless, if this film does well enough in the US to earn a sequel, it’s difficult to imagine her not being in it. Attempting to justify Stallone taking the helmet off in 1995, Danny Cannon made the point that Dredd himself isn’t really a character, he’s a monolithic icon – it’s easy to tell stories with him, but difficult to tell stories about him. A full-length film narrative needs a human being in it, hence the more humanised Stallone Dredd. Much as I enjoyed Urban’s performance as Dredd, I can’t see him carrying a film solo – you need another character for the audience to identify with.

If part of Dredd‘s success is down to the presence of Thirlby as Anderson, then it also owes a debt to the striking visual style it possesses. Much of this is enabled through the plot device of a narcotic which slows down the perception of time – hence some remarkable slow-motion 3D sequences, a couple of which are extremely grisly. Finding a replacement for this gimmick will be another challenge, should the sequel go ahead, and there are a few other areas where this film could be improved upon – in particular, there’s a subplot here about corruption inside Justice Department which didn’t feel like an organic part of the story.

I turned up to this film with rather more foreboding than anticipation, bad memories of Stallone and good memories of The Raid both lingering. However, even before the title card, Dredd‘s bleakness and energy and evident love of the source material had started to win me over. I saw this movie very much from the point-of-view of a Dredd fan, but as luck would have it I was accompanied by my good friend Shaolin Rasta, who was completely unaware of the character beforehand. He enjoyed it too, even if he blanched a bit at some of the more extreme violence: which to me suggests that this film will find a mainstream audience, though possibly a limited one. This is very much a hard-core action movie with some neat SF trappings draped around it, and a slightly unusual central character, and as such it’s very successful. The challenge for any future productions with this team and this world will be to take all the very real virtues of Dredd and use them to tell a story with genuine ideas and something to actually say for itself. But this movie is a good first step and a terrific introduction to the character.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 19th 2004:

Now, readers with long trousers and short shrift may recall that I was not particularly impressed with Doug Liman’s 2002 thriller The Bourne Identity. It had some things going for it but I felt that on the whole it was bit bland, and badly lacking in the lead performance department. As usual, everyone else in the world disagreed and the startling box office Bourne Identity racked up made a sequel virtually inevitable. And here it is: The Bourne Supremacy, directed by Paul Greengrass.

At the start of the movie, we find our favourite amnesiac hitman/youth hosteller Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Goa with his main squeeze Marie (the bodacious Franka Potente), doing his best to remember who he is, all the while avoiding his former CIA employers and anyone else who might have a gripe about his former lifestyle.

Sadly all this comes to an end when Bad Guys frame Bourne for the murder of two men in Berlin, and send another, equally grumpy hitman (Karl Urban from Lord of the Rings – if I had a fiver for every time I’ve typed those last five words this summer…) to settle his hash. I hope I’m not spoiling this film for anyone when I reveal that Bourne does not get topped fifteen minutes in, but instead sets out to discover who it is that’s got it in for him, and exact a suitable vengeance upon them…

Everyone is likening the burgeoning Bourne franchise to the Bond phenomenon, which I suppose is understandable given that the Bond films have come to epitomise mainstream action movie-making, and both series are about spies. But the two really have very little in common, and I suppose the success of Bourne is because it does do something different with the genre. The Bourne Supremacy is in no way a conventional studio thriller: it’s dour, and naturalistic, and the plot is ferociously convoluted – I can speak only for myself, but I had to pay attention in order to keep track of who was double-crossing who and why. Bourne (played impressively well by Damon) is a sombre, grim figure, who barely speaks for most of the movie, let alone quips his way through action set-pieces. You feel a certain amount of sympathy for him, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be him.

This realism colours the entire movie: having seen it I’m pretty sure I could now track someone across Europe, avoiding police all the while, find out which hotel they were staying in, and sneak into their room and liquidate them with a rolled-up magazine and a toaster. Director Greengrass coats the whole thing in a patina of authenticity that’s very beguiling. That element of the movie which isn’t concerned with Bourne’s latest jaunt is mostly to do with internal CIA politics, as Bourne is hunted by Joan Allen’s senior agent, variously helped and hindered by Brian Cox and Julia Stiles (Cox and Stiles were apparently in the first one, not that I remember them at all). The performances here are equally solid and the storytelling assured: this is where most of the plot takes place, so that’s just as well.

But it’s not all wordiness, tradecraft and depression: one element of the original movie that really did impress me was its action sequences, and Supremacy surpasses it here too. Damon is extremely convincing in his fight sequences and Greengrass puts together an astonishingly good car chase for a man who started his career on the TV news show World in Action. There aren’t many sequences like this, but there are just enough to keep the movie going and they’re all executed pretty much flawlessly.

There’s barely a single joke in The Bourne Supremacy, it’s not an especially sunny or cheerful film, and the ending leaves all sorts of questions hanging in the breeze. And, to be honest, I’m really not sure if this kind of tone and style can be sustained over more than a couple of movies without it all getting terribly repetitive. But this is great stuff, one of the best movies of the summer: intelligent, focussed, and engrossing. Recommended.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 2nd 2004:

One of the more popular tools in the arsenal of the film studios when it comes to advertising their new releases is the behind-the-scenes documentary, most of which tend to be about as credibly objective as something by Leni Riefenstahl. I saw one the other day promoting David Twohy’s The Chronicles of Riddick, which claimed ‘this movie will take you to a world unlike any you’ve ever seen before!’

Well, er, no it doesn’t. This movie will take you a world entirely like many others you’ve seen before, assuming you’re at all familiar with SF movies of the last quarter-century or so. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course, but let’s be clear about what we’re dealing with here: a rare example, years after the prime of the subgenre, of a blatant Star Wars knock-off.

At the start of the movie we find the titular shine-jobbed man-mountain (played, like you need telling, by the great Vin Diesel) on the run from bounty hunters. Riddick is a bit irked to learn they’ve been sicced on him by his old mucker the Imam (Keith David, reprising his role from Pitch Black) and sets off to find out why. Well, it turns out that the Imam’s home planet of Helion Prime is in the path of a mob of rampaging interstellar masochists called the Necromongers, who are basically cranky Jehovah’s Witnesses with funny hats and ray-guns. The Imam and his new friend Aereon the Elemental (Judi Dench – yes, really) think that Riddick is the only one who can kill the Lord Marshal of the Necromongers (Colm Feore) and have thus set about tracking him down. But can Riddick be bothered to save the universe? Where does he get his goggles from? And whatever’s happened to Radha Mitchell’s movie career..?

Other than a rather effective but not-too-long sequence midway through which clearly takes its cues from the original movie, Riddick really isn’t very much like Pitch Black. The first film was clearly inspired by Alien, a fairly ‘hard’ piece of SF as movies go. The Chronicles of Riddick, as its rather portentous title suggests, is a different kettle of fish, a piece of baroque space-opera owing heavy debts to things like Star Wars, Dune, and even Star Trek.

That the new movie is able to forge these much-used elements together to create something new and fairly interesting is mainly due to some impressively ornate production design and some strong performances. Diesel is effortlessly charismatic despite being given some rather choice dialogue to deliver (he still talks as if his tongue is bit too big for his mouth, too) and he’s well supported by Keith David as the Imam and Alexa Davalos as his youthful ward. Judi Dench gamely takes things commendably seriously, while Thandie Newton very nearly draws your attention away from her various costumes, and primo henchman du jour Karl Urban does his ‘troubled warrior’ act again.

On the other hand, The Chronicles of Riddick is frequently troubled by unnecessary silliness: silly accents, silly names, and silly set pieces. While most of the special effects are fine, the CGI beasties of the planet Crematoria (told you there were some silly names) are very manky and not a patch on the original Pitch Black monsters. The lack of discipline in Twohy’s script is also irksome: we hear at great length about the Necromongers’ quest to reach a legendary zone known as the Underverse, but this turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot, merely being an excuse to give Feore’s character super-powers so his climactic duel with Diesel isn’t utterly one-sided. (Twohy’s direction is nearly as bad, being entirely too fond of strobe lighting.) That said, the actual conclusion of the movie manages to be both startling yet logical: it’s one of those rare endings that leaves you really wanting to know what happens next (something this movie’s poor US box office makes rather unlikely).

For all its CGI wizardry, The Chronicles of Riddick is really a very retro piece of film-making, the sort of thing that came out all the time in the early 80s. These days, of course, the Star Wars prequels pretty much have the ‘bombastic space opera’ marketplace all to themselves. If you like them, you’ll probably like this. It’s not in the same league as Pitch Black, but as fairly brainless action-hero fun it’s entirely acceptable.

Read Full Post »

Watching awards ceremonies is like eating junk food: enjoyable in an unmemorable way, but even while you’re doing it you know it’s no good for you. They’re all either brazenly political or hopelessly populist, and the BAFTAs last night were no exception. While surely no-one could object to Sir Christopher Lee being honoured (and didn’t he look frail? I could never have imagined Christopher Lee being frail, it’s just not in the essence of the man – it’s like Lady Gaga being demure or Ed Milliband being dynamic and authoritative (sorry Ed). At least the voice is still there), anyone who did take the proceedings seriously would surely be peeved by the absence of major gongs for Inception (I guess releasing it in the summer killed its credibility) or for Barbara Hershey’s turn in Black Swan.
So, anyway, I went for a bit of a ramble on t’internet today and found myself on Barbara Hershey’s Wikipedia page. While I was there I took the opportunity to add a link to one of her films which had been overlooked (Kevin O’Connor’s barking-mad picture-postcard action-comedy, Trial by Combat – almost unknown, but one of my favourites) and wanted to…

Well, look, as you may know, the thing about Wikipedia is that everything on there needs to be sourced. Not necessarily a good or famous source (I‘m listed as an authority in the article on The Chrysalids, for heaven’s sake), but something external. And I tried to find an appropriate source on t’internet, but I couldn’t. However:

Okay, on the left we have a picture of the American actress Barbara Hershey, taken (I would guess) in the late seventies. The picture on the right – which I think you will agree bears something of a resemblance – is of the American peace officer and sometime-head-of-state, Barbara Hershey, who first came to prominence in the late seventies (she is, as you may have guessed, fictional).

It seems very obvious to me that fictional-Hershey is clearly based on real-Hershey (the name and appearance are surely something of a giveaway), but without a signed statement to that effect from John Wagner and Alan Grant (fictional-Hershey’s originators) you can’t say so on Wikipedia without sparking one of those tedious outbursts of Wikipedantry that normally stop me from contributing to the site.

Still, digging through the internet I found lots of interesting stuff out about a film which it’s not impossible that fictional-Hershey may in fact be appearing in, Pete Travis’s Dredd. I knew this movie was on the way, but I wasn’t aware it was actually shooting – it is, in South Africa – and it’s due out next year. (Like Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, Man of Steel, Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla, Bond 23 and half-a-dozen others weren’t already enough to get me somewhat overexcited already.) [Some of these movies were later postponed, obviously. – A]

Quite why the makers of Dredd have opted for that title I’m not entirely sure; it seems a little obtuse, not to mention superfluous as everyone still calls, and will continue to call it, the new Judge Dredd movie.

You probably already know who Judge Dredd is if you’re reading this, but I suppose there’s a chance your exposure has been limited to the 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, which nobody in the world appears to like. Okay then: Judge Dredd is the title character of a long-running British comic-strip set in a dystopian future version of America. Atomic wars have reduced most of the planet to poisonous wasteland and the human population is confined to autonomous city-states. Horrible living conditions and mass unemployment have caused skyrocketing crime rates, which in turn have led to the adoption of a brutal, authoritarian political system, with the abolition of democracy and the law enforcers themselves being given the powers of judge, jury, and executioner.

Judge Dredd is, of course, foremost amongst the lawmen of Mega-City One, an analogue and amalgam of New York City, Washington, and most other major cities on the east coast of America. My description has probably made this strip sound excessively grim and downbeat, but the odd thing is that much of the time it’s almost written as a black comedy: one strip tells the tale of a citizen who tries to distinguish himself by growing his nose to enormous proportions, another deals with a brief fad for custard pie throwing, and a personal favourite of mine sees Dredd assigned to protect a famous football team following death threats made against them: the threats turn out to be bogus, but unfortunately by this point Dredd has already found grounds to arrest most of the players and the manager…

One of the things that distinguishes the strip is that, yes, Judge Dredd is a bastard. He shoots or arrests nearly everyone he meets, he treats the Law basically as God (‘law-fearing’ is the nicest thing he can find to say about regular citizens, which is interesting given that at one point ‘I am the Law’ was virtually his catchphrase), and most of the time he has no issues with being the chief enforcer for a totalitarian regime which practices savage population control (tranquiliser chemicals in the atmosphere and discreet euthanisation of the senile elderly) and deliberately rules through fear. (One story deals with the plight of citizens whose terror of Dredd has led to them becoming delusional and institutionalised. When informed of this, Dredd is indifferent, saying it’s the price they have to pay for law and order – things would be much worse in a democracy. And when the doctor involved asks why they should take Dredd’s word for it, Dredd tells him to watch his mouth or he’ll end up in a padded cell himself.)

In one famous 1982 strip, Dredd earned himself a special place in comics history by becoming personally responsible for the deaths of 800 million people, when he launched a nuclear strike against the Mega-City’s Russian counterpart (the ‘Sovs’, as they are called in the peculiar argot of Dredd’s world, were attempting to conquer Dredd’s home, so it was hardly an unprovoked assault – but it’s difficult to think of another fictional character who would both want and be permitted to do such a thing).

Dredd’s status as a brutal, relentless, inhuman figure is neatly encapsulated by the fact that, 34 years on from his first appearance, we still have almost no idea what he looks like. He wears his uniform helmet nearly all the time (even in the bath, according to some accounts) and his face has only been seen when it’s been temporarily altered or horribly scarred. (The face of the man Dredd was cloned from was pictured in one early story, but as the cloning connection was not established until much later, it’s generally accepted that this isn’t binding.) And in many stories he isn’t much more than a cipher or an incidental figure in the background, not unlike Morpheus in many of the best Sandman tales.

So Judge Dredd is actually a rather complicated and unusual figure, as comic-strip heroes go, both personally and narratively, and this may explain why the Stallone Dredd movie was such a disaster. These ambiguities of the character were ignored, along with the weirdness of much of his world, and – the crowning indignity – Stallone was permitted to take the helmet off. The question is, can the new movie do any better?

Can no-one make that helmet work as part of an actual costume? Oh, well. (Pretty sure the real Dredd always shaves, too…)

Well, early days yet, but everyone at least seems to be on the right page. The concept art for the movie strikes the right balance between the world of the comic and something that will appear credible on the big screen, and leading man Karl Urban seems to know where he’s coming from with the character (the helmet stays on). Rather than an epic adventure, the plot of the movie is instead a day-in-the-life type story, focussing on Dredd and a young trainee (Olivia Thirlby) he’s assessing.

As I’ve already mentioned, Dredd can be a difficult character to empathise with, and the inclusion of the trainee character will no doubt provide a figure the audience can actually identify with. What’s slightly surprising is that the trainee is a new version of Judge Anderson, one of the most successful characters to spin off from the strip (the many mid-Eighties panels of Anderson zipping and unzipping her figure-hugging synthi-leather catsuit, mostly drawn by Brett Ewins, played a pivotal role in my own development as a heterosexual male). Anderson is psychic, and I’m curious to see how the film handles this – it’s one thing that in some ways makes her less identifiable than Dredd. We see Anderson’s face rather a lot, too, and she doesn’t look much like Thirlby. Thirlby, if we’re honest, looks rather more like Judge Hershey – but there you go…

However, most of the Dredd fanbase seem happy with proceedings, and Dredd creator John Wagner has given it his seal of approval, which must count for something. As usual, I remain hopeful – I’m not sure that a single movie can do justice to the scope and richness of a character and a world which has been in development on a weekly basis for over three decades, but it’s surely worth a try, and a good Dredd movie would be easily capable of challenging any of the other big-name releases out next year, in terms of quality if not box office.

Read Full Post »