Back when I was about 14 or 15 I did something incredibly cool and daring; I snuck into a cinema to see an 18-rated film. I did all the things expected; didn't shave for a week or two, put on my gruffest voice when buying a ticket, and ignored the knowing, you-aren't-fooling-anyone-sonny smirk from the usherette. The film in question was Robocop, Paul Verhoeven's startlingly violent satire of American culture. I rather had to see it, you see, because pretty much everyone agreed that it was a wholesale lift from 2000ad's Judge Dredd with the serial numbers filed off; a taciturn, humourless lawman without a face dispensing near-future summary justice against a blackly humourous backdrop of a society taken to extremes.
The thing was, I loved Robocop to death. My descriptions of the scene with Emil, the vat of toxic waste and a speeding motor car greatly added to my kudos at school. It was everything I'd wanted to see from a big screen Dredd film. And so...
...so you expect I'd fall in love with the latest iteration of Dredd to hit the big screen about a half-hour in when he tells a group of perps to "Put down your weapons. You have fifteen seconds to comply", a direct lift from Robocop, acknowledging the shared cultural DNA. I didn't fall in love with it then, though, because I'd actually fallen in love with it pretty much instantly.
When I saw the early stills, I had a sinking sense of disappointment. The vehicles looked cheap, the costumes shabby and the whole thing just looked nothing like the sleek future of Mega City One from the comic. What I didn't realise from those early leaked set shots was that the production was turning it's low budget into a plus. Rather than the hi-tech megapolis of the 1995 Stallone flick, the MC1 in this Dredd is an appalling, run-down hellhole with few resources - and what there are almost entirely dedicated to keeping a lid on the huge population crammed into colossal 200-story skyscrapers behind city walls beyond which sits the irradiated wasteland which is all that remains of most of North America. The degree of thought which has gone into the world-building is truly impressive. The highest tech items in the film are drone cameras with recognition software constantly scanning the streets and the abominably overpowered weaponry given to the judges not to preserve law and order but solely to maintain a semblance of control by striking fear through massive overkill into a truculent population forever on the brink of civil disorder. There's nothing like a fire department - presumably the city can't afford one - and so fires just blaze out of control whilst onlookers shrug and get on with their lives, and the most comfortable room in the whole film is the control room at the Grand Hall of Justice which looks like nothing better than a well-equipped call centre. Everyone else lives in squalor. 96% unemployment, cheap clothes, computer screens which show the old `flying through space' screensavers, and shopping malls made out of poured concrete where most of the shops are shut. Whatever cataclysm created the city is never discussed, but it is clear that the whole fabric of society is constantly on the brink of collapse and the Judges can only just about keep things ticking along through the use of excessive force and fear.
Against this miserable backdrop we have the plot, which is that of Dredd taking a rookie (Anderson) on a training evaluation day to decide if she can make the grade as a full Judge. The two are trapped inside one of the blocks by a local crime lord (lady?) (Ma- Ma) and must fight their way out through her private army of gun wielding goons. As a plot it's pretty slim, but it's redeemed by a fine script full of black humour, the excellent world building outlined above, and some fine turns by the leads - especially Karl Urban who disappears into character and does a far better job than I ever reckoned he would.
It's all presented as just another day in the life in MC1 - one of the finest lines in the whole thing is Dredds reply to someone at the end asking him what happened and the implication that this is what happens every day, hundreds of times across the city, just adds to the realization of what a godawful place to live Mega City One must really be.
Apparently, if this does well enough to justify a sequel there are plans to do a couple more which would expand the world (such as how the megacities came to be) and introduce somee of the madder aspects of the comic world like Satanus the Tyrannosaur and the Dark Judges. For this reason alone I encourage everyone to go and see it. Such is the bang-on quality of this film that I dearly, dearly would love to see what they do with the Dark Judges.