“…anger. And control. But there’s something else. Something behind the control…”
I had little desire to see Dredd, which might surprise those who know my long-standing love of comic book material. Between the lackluster 1995 film with Sylvester Stallone and a completely off-putting trailer for the new film starring Karl Urban, I doubted it had anything to offer. Only the positive reviews from the San Diego Comic Con game me a shred of hope, because that can honestly be a comic property’s toughest crowd.
Fans of Dirty Harry films and original Robocop should enjoy Dredd, as it pleasantly surprised me with its late 70s/early 80s visual grit and narrative style. With an old-school, methodical pacing and simple, linear form it may not be award-winning, but it is engaging. Taking the “one day in the life” approach, the film goes back to the source material and keeps its central character an enigma; in keeping with the comic, Urban never even removes his helmet and we never see his face. Dredd’s writer/creator John Wagner described why they made that choice years ago, which alone is cause for conversation:
“It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul.”
The world of Judge Joseph Dredd and the other inhabitants of “Mega-City One” were notably influenced by Clint Eastwood’s tough cop movies when the comic debuted in 1977. The style and look influenced subsequent films like Blade Runner, inspired bands like Anthrax, and doubtlessly informed Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop: Peter Weller’s character was a rookie being broken in by his female partner at the beginning of that 80s film, and here the practically robotic Dredd takes a female rookie out for assessment, to test if her sub-par performance scores may be mitigated by her latent psychic abilities.
We see a harsh, callous consistency in Judge Dredd who – like his fellow officers – has been given all three judiciary roles: judge, jury and executioner. He’s dispensing justice, but to what end? When Anderson says she joined to make a difference, believing she can help change or improve things, there is a smirk and scoff from her seasoned partner. Dredd seems resigned to a world that will never really improve, doling out never-ending dispensations of justice. Whereas Robocop‘s Alex Murphy would inform perpetrators flatly that “dead or alive, you’re coming with me”, Dredd states even more bluntly that it “makes no difference” to him.
When the two judges find themselves locked down in an enormous building, facing the drug-peddling minions of “Ma-Ma” (who has reasons to make sure the judges and their apprehended suspect don’t leave the building alive) the film becomes a gritty shoot-em-up, one part action movie with a dose of video game sensibility, with climbing levels and increasing stakes. It’s a faithful adaptation of the source material. You may not like the movie, but that’s more indicative that you’re not a fan of the storytelling style, or the universe of Dredd.
“There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” - James 4:12
One scene in the film depicts a character who has been judged, and a hesitant Anderson is told to carry out immediate sentencing. Everything is black and white, and justice must be uncompromising. This responsibility, and its ripple implications, haunt Anderson and the viewer in a later scene. Can subjective humans administrate perfect justice? Dredd sees everything in this manner: he even chafes at taking out Anderson for assessment in the first place, since her test scores were technically a fail. There are no exceptions in Judge Dredd’s rule.
“…but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” - 1 Peter 4:5
Part of us likes this unswerving application of justice, taking joy as we witness the wicked, compromised people in a story receive what’s coming to them. From The Bride’s dispensation in Kill Bill to the grave return of The Crow, from Maximus’ arena vengeance in Gladiator to Creasy’s calculating administrations in Man on Fire, there is a hope inside us that transgressors will face true justice for their sins. Even in scripture, we see the dead crying out for a true and final justice in the universe:
“They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”- Revelation 6:10
It’s not just a bloodthirsty, depraved audience that enjoys a film like Dredd. While there may be some wicked relish and wrong motives in our hearts when we engage such fare, there is an appeal to the moment a growling Dredd calls “judgement time”, justice meted out to those deserving it, even if you prefer a less bloody depiction of vengeance in something like, quite obviously, The Avengers. However, there’s always a catch, as Eastwood’s character Will Munny reminds us in Unforgiven:
The Schofield Kid: Well, I guess they had it comin’.
Will Munny: We all got it comin’, Kid.
There are a few moments in the Dredd film where small measures of grace are administered. Someone is let go because – despite their obvious crimes – one judge determines they are more victim than perpetrator. Even Dredd, in one sequence, barks to gun-toting juveniles that he has authority to kill them… yet wastes a precious second shifting his ammunition to stun rounds. If justice truly has no soul, then why does he do this? Even the mastermind Ma-Ma, as her rap sheet displays, started as a street girl disfigured viciously by her pimp. Nearly everyone in the film could be accused of being both victim and perpetrator. Does the same apply to us and, if so, what if pure and swift justice were applied to our own actions… or even worse, our hearts?
“God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” - Psalm 7:11
Anderson’s role in the film seems to be reminding the viewer that – while Dredd adds a layer of fearful but faithful protection – justice does need a face. If it doesn’t, at some point or another we’re all found guilty with no chance of parole, no hope of charges being dismissed. The image of Dredd captures one facet of our true judge, but I’m thankful the story we’re living in (and its central hero) stand revealed as multi-faceted. Anderson senses there is “something” beyond Dredd’s anger and control… that there is more to him than mere administrator of justice. We barely get a glimpse of what this might be in the film, but the revelation is that beneath the armor and the faceless helmet… he does have a soul.
If ultimate justice truly has no face, we’re all in big trouble. I’m glad scripture paints a portrait of righteous indignation, judgement, and ultimate control found in our true judge… but also love, grace, and salvation.
“for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” - John 12:47-48