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Anatomy of an action scene: Dredd (2012)

Anatomy of an action scene: Dredd (2012)

Directed by Pete Travis - Produced by Reliance Entertainment - Cert.18

Some spoilers, but no discussion of the second-half of the film.

We recently did a similar article on the final fight in the Malaysian action-film, The Raid 2 - looking at one scene in isolation to pick it apart and see how it works and why and how it has the effect on us it does.  Now, Dredd actually was briefly mentioned in that article due to the fact that it was released shortly after the original The Raid film.  They share the same basic story; heavily outnumbered cops locked in a high-rise apartment controlled by a vicious villain, full of murderers, and fighting for their lives.  

To people who don't read comics the medium seems like it's all about Marvel and DC (maybe with some Image and Dark Horse thrown in).  American comics; and in particular two huge companies churning out a massive number of titles.  The UK didn't have a bunch of companies producing lots of comics back in the day, or even now - but it had, and has, something almost as good - and never really properly given its' due.


2000 AD.  A weekly comic-book, with usually around five different stories or so running at the same time over multiple issues.  The amount of talent it is responsible for fostering is truly staggering.  The influence it has had on comics in general over the last 30 years is impossible to measure.  And you'll know some of the names.  

He got his break writing for Dr. Who Monthly, but Alan Moore started writing the things he wanted to write at 2000 AD.  Don't know the name?  Watchmen, that's one of his - regularly voted as the greatest comicbook of all time.  The Killing Joke - regularly voted one of the greatest ever Batman stories, that's him.  I'm not going to list them all; we'll be here all day.

  • Mark Millar 
  • Grant Morrison
  • Jamie Hewlett
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Garth Ennis
  • Warren Ennis

There are so many names, but I can't just sit here and list them all.  At one point British talent was pretty-much running American comics (particularly DC) - there's even a wikipedia page dedicated to it;

So, it was a pretty-big deal.  Excellent writers, amazing artists.  I read a little of the output from across the pond, but it was 2000 AD and it's more adult-skewed companion title, that really shaped what I expected from comic books.

The Sylvester Stallone debacle killed Dredd dead as the movie franchise it could easily have been; for a while.  Rogue Trooper (the film starring Kurt Russell), was another 2000 AD property mishandled by Americans who didn't understand what they were working with (admittedly directed by a Brit - and co-written by the guy who scripted freaking Blade Runner) but it had "Hollywood Studio Committee Meeting" stamped all over it and barely shares anything with the source material.  2000 AD characters and stories might superficially look like their American cousins, but they are resolutely British.  Judge Dredd was always a view of America from the UK.  The weird gun laws, death penalties, and a commentary on "superheroes" in general - people who can just go anywhere and do anything and answer to no-one.  American comic-books thrived on vigilante justice (though it was dressed up to be more palatable); Dredd questioned all of that.  It took the theme to its' logical, extreme, realistic conclusion.

Go forward a few years and a British creative team are in charge of a new film.  And it's not the big hit it should have been, but it is glorious.

Not that I thought so the first time I saw it.  I had disappointments.  There are two characters who are nearly always in every Dredd story - obviously the man himself, and the city - Mega City One.  Mega City One is an organic, living, extraordinary-looking place unlike anywhere else; the architecture, a mish-mash of weird styles and people, letting you know you're somewhere very very different.

But not in this film.  The outside world looks like Beijing does now; just an extreme version of it. I couldn't understand why, especially as the CGI scenes of the city are very limited; they could have made those shots look just like the comic without any extra expense.  

Mega City One.  Kind of.

Gradually, I began to understand.  If you make the environment incredibly strange, that means things like clothing and vehicles have to develop in the same way, which is expensive (period costume TV and film are among the most expensive to produce) - and this film is on a budget.  Also, it actually makes some sort of sense.  Classic Dredd in the comics is usually represented as being in his 50's; Karl Urban really isn't.  So it's a younger city and a younger Dredd - the place and people have a few years to start looking more weird.  Also, after World War III are people going to be spending much time on developing delightful new architecture and investing in new technologies, or is the priority going to be making giant versions of what they already know how to do - there's a giant populace that suddenly needed housing.  Of course everything looks the same, of course the MegaBlocks are lined up in huge grids.

Besides, our MegaBlock, the gigantic apartment block we find ourselves in for the majority of the film, is pure Judge Dredd.  The interiors look exactly like you expect a Block to look and feel like.  The more I watched it, the more I began to like it.  

Called in to investigate some drug-related executions at a Block called "Peach Trees" (such a nice name for such a harsh place - people have said this film lacks humour; it's actually there in spades, it's just very very dry) Dredd and Anderson are Judges (a police/military force) tasked with finding out what went on.  Informed that the person responsible is Ma-ma (Lena Headey - if you think she's vicious in Game of Thrones you've not seen anything yet) a gang-leader who runs the Block and the army of criminals in it, the Judges start clearing the place out of villains.  Ma-ma is not happy, and puts the Block on lock-down; heavy shielding intended to protect the building from bombs in case of another war, slides into place, locking everyone in and blocking all communications out.  She orders their deaths, block-wide, over the intercom.  And she's 200 floors above them with a legion of armed thugs between them and her.

You get a glimpse of the gattling-gun attack at the 1.42 min mark

There's a lot of action in Dredd, but most of it happens very quickly.  Generally the Judges are usually outnumbered when they run into a group of thugs.  I'm reminded of a line from the seminal Michael Caine revenge thriller "Get Carter" after he's slugged a villain a few times who is now lying on the floor.

"You're a big man, but you're out of shape.  With me, it's a full time job.  Now behave yourself".

The bad guys have numbers on their side but they haven't been trained from birth to be unstoppable killing machines (Anderson being an exception; brought into the Judge program as a young orphan after her family die of radiation poisoning - still, she's benefited from years of training for this kind of thing).  The two Judges plow through countless gangs of killers quickly and efficiently - it's really not unlike a Samurai film - the most skillful and precise is the victor in a brief exchange of attacks.  It feels real; it feels like two human killing-machines cutting through some heavily armed, but untrained, morons like a hot knife goes through butter.

Ma-ma has three aces up her sleeves - she's known a day like this would probably come and she's made contingency plans.  The other two that come into play in the second half of the film won't be discussed here; you may not have seen the film (Dredd deserves a proper review, perhaps we'll take a look at the whole thing sometime).  Sending random groups of idiots armed with shotguns and rifles out to deal with the problem hasn't been a roaring success and it's finally become clear that more decisive action be taken.

Ma-ma has complete control of the security systems in the building.  Dredd, Anderson and one of Ma-ma's more important drug-dealers who they've got in cuffs are working their way down a corridor when security shutters, metal bars, fly down from the ceiling blocking their path.  Each level has four sides, and they're trapped in one of them.  They can see out onto the rest of the level walkways that lead around the gap - in the middle of each level a massive gap with walls around it (usually the roof is open so light and air can flood down through the middle of the building); they can see what's happening on the opposite balcony.

Three, gigantic, gattling guns are being put into position equally spaced apart - they look like anti-aircraft weaponry.  They look seriously fearsome - massive.  The recoil from these weapons is going to be so intense that Ma-ma's goons are drilling the feet of these cannons into the ground.  The Judges, with criminal in tow, run for the back of their section of apartments.

We cut to the normal people; families, children, the elderly all stuck in this blocked-off zone.  Hiding behind furniture, trying to keep low - hopeless attempts to stay alive.

The firing begins.  Shells don't rip through one wall - they go through one and then another and then another.  Nothing stops the onslaught - machinery, walls, doors, people - all shredded like paper.

The Judges are in the one place that buys them a little time - the other side of the elevator shaft is more densely fortified than any other part of the structure near them.  But it's only given them a minute or two.

"Concentrate fire!" shouts Ma-ma, and the three cannons target the left of the imprisoned area together and slowly work to the right.  If Dredd and Anderson stay where they are they're dead - if they move to the right they'll be dead 5 seconds later.  There's nowhere to go.

The gattling-gun attack and drop to the ground.

And then Dredd notices light from a hole in the wall opposite - it's night outside, but here we have a ray of light shining through from somewhere outside the building.  He selects an explosive shell on his pistol, blows a hole in the wall and they jump into the void.

Now, when I first watched the film I found this a little too convenient.  They don't know where they're jumping to - how do they know they're not just going to free-fall to their deaths?  But people do.  Skyscrapers on fire with flames closing in and people with no hope of rescue - they jump.  Stay and die; jump and probably die.  It actually seems to be an ingrained instinct.

They jump and land.  It's a skatepark area, bolted onto the side of the building.  There are a few of them on the side of Peach Trees.  We've seen them earlier in the film, and in the maps the Judges have previously studied.  It's snowing.  Here there are a bunch of teenagers, locked out of the building for hours, just staring at them.

Communications kick back in.  Dredd calls for back up.  "Stay alive" the operator tells him at the end of the conversation.

Meanwhile Ma-ma has finished strafing the area.  Everything in there is dead or in tiny pieces.  She sends her lieutenant Caleb (Warrick Grier) and some henchmen over to confirm the deaths.

Dredd realises he can't defend his position - he's out in the open and lower down than their exit point - he has to go back in.

Caleb and the others pick their way through the corridors and smoke and debris and then we cut to Ma-ma; beginning to look pleased with herself - finally rid of this most inconvenient annoyance.

What makes this scene special is what we don't see - we stick mostly to Ma-ma's face.  Triumph begins to slowly evolve and then it evaporates.

We look to the main corridor entrance on the right.  A couple of pistol shots.  Suddenly worry, concern.  Nothing to see in that corridor but smoke, no matter how hard you look.  Then some movement, shadow moving fast, some vague pleas for mercy.  

Dredd appears, forcing Caleb fast out of the corridor out onto the balcony - pushing, moving the cowering man along like a freight-train plowing into and forcing a small car down train tracks at high-speed.  

Dredd pitches Caleb off the balcony and out into the void.  He turns and disappears back into the smoke.  He doesn't even look at Ma-ma.  It doesn't matter who you send, or what artillery you have; I'm just going to deal with it, and then I'll deal with you - that's the message.  I'd look a true opponent it the eye; but I'm not even going to give you that.

It's fantastic.

It's this moment that Ma-ma finally begins to truly realise what she's up against and that we realise just how ruthless Dredd is prepared to be.

And we're only half-way through the film.  It's a thrilling sequence.


Olivia Thirlby is just as good as Urban is in her role as rookie Judge Anderson - told on this, her first day on the job that there's a good chance she'll end up dead; and that's really something, because Urban is Dredd, as perfect a representation of the man as you could hope to find in film.  

The love and appreciation for this film steadily grows.  Blade Runner bombed and found its' audience later - in rentals and TV showings.  It's now a classic.  This isn't Blade Runner, but it's a great sci-fi action film that rewards repeat viewings (2D or 3D)  and should have been the beginning of a franchise.  The audience is there and they've come to appreciate it in large numbers; but they came to it too slowly.  Dredd had to make its' money at the cinema and VOD, and it didn't do enough when it was new.

I have no doubt Dredd will be back - the film is getting more and more popular as time goes on and people will eventually realise that there is money to be made - but with Urban and Thirlby?  I guess we can hope.

Chris Coates

All promotional materials property of Rebellion.
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