How to Reveal Character Through Action: The Opening Sequence of Dredd (2012)

Dredd strutting his stuff

**Disclaimer** This article is solely in reference to the 2012 film Dredd based on the 2,000AD comic book of the same name. It has nothing to do with the 1995 Sylvester Stallone monstrosity Judge Dredd which we have erased from our collective memories and hope that all copies, including negatives, rough cuts, and archive footage have been destroyed on a Megacity One size bonfire.

Okay, let’s get serious for a minute. How many of you have seen the Pete Travis directed, Alex Garland scripted film Dredd? So, that makes 2 of us at least. For many Dredd arrived and departed with little fanfare and even less interest in a summer packed to the gills with blockbusters. Faced with mega opposition in the shape of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3, and The Bourne Legacy, a Megacity set, cyberpunk thriller based on a niche comic book over 35 years old at that time and still suffering from the stink of it’s previous move adaptation (shudder) was always going to be a tough sell. But for those who ventured into their local multiplex (oh how I miss those days) they were in for a treat. Dredd is a violent, brutal and harsh film that eschews the trend for family friendly summer fare in favour of brain splattered floors and skinned alive drug dealers. The level of violence in Dredd is impressive and led to a number of cuts having to be made in the U.S. to get an R rating and censors elsewhere in the world slapping the highest ratings they could on the film. It is this total disregard for movie trends that made the film a breath of fresh air when it was released (at least for me) and allowed it to develop a feverish cult following whose demands for a Dredd 2 still echo on social media today.

Ok, what is Dredd even about?

“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” (Jay Chandraskehar, Beerfest)

Karl Urban as Dredd

In terms of script, Dredd is a simplistic movie set around action set pieces similar to Gareth Evan’s The Raid. Set in the near future after nuclear war has destroyed much of the planet, the remaining inhabitants are crammed into sprawling metropolises called Megacities. Outside of these huge concrete jungles lies a wasteland filled with mutants and death. The Megacities themselves don’t fare much better and violence and crime run rife. The only thing stopping a total dystopian meltdown are the Judges, a brutal form of law and order who serve as judge, jury, and executioner to society’s ills. Dredd follows a day in the life of legendary Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) as he is tasked with training new recruit, borderline failure (“it’s not marginal, she failed.”), and mutant Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Things become tricky for the two protagonists when they respond to a series of murders in Peachtrees, a 200-story slum, and find themselves trapped by the viscous Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her clan with only one way to go, up. Like I said, the script is simplistic, but the film shines due to great casting (Karl Urban is and always will be ‘The Law’ in my book), an excellent aesthetic that captures the look and feel of the comic books, and fantastic action sequences that drive the film and reveal the story and characters without the need for expansive exposition and dialogue. Its this use of action that I’m going to delve into a little with this article.

The bike chase to badassery

“Perps were… uncooperative.” (Karl Urban, Dredd)

How many times have you watched a film only to see a character lazily introduced by lengthy exposition or dialogue that tells you little about who they are or what motivates them? Being told somebody is the best at what they do, or are pure evil, or are a badass, or whatever the film makers want you to believe about the character doesn’t make you “believe” that about the character. Dredd is a badass, but the film doesn’t need to tell us that. In fact, excluding a small nod to how the other Judges see him late in the movie (“You know who he is? I do”), nobody bangs the Dredd drum or extols his virtues. We don’t need to be told that Dredd is a badass because we see it within the first few minutes of the movie. The bike chase through the vast metropolitan sprawl of Megacity One culminating in the shopping mall shoot out and one ‘hot shot’ losing his head is all we need to understand who Dredd is. A good action sequence like the Dredd bike chase and mall confrontation allows the film makers to stay away from boring exposition and reveal Dredd through action. This sequence introduces the audience to his character and reveals his traits (and flaws) and how these determine his decisions.

In the opening scene of the film, Dredd is determined, unflinching, and brutal. He’s not a hero in the typical sense and shows little in the way emotion. When the woman thanks him for saving her life, he doesn’t care. Saving her life wasn’t his goal. Stopping the bad guy was because he was breaking the law. By saving the woman Dredd isn’t being compassionate or heroic. He is fulfilling his duty as a Judge the same way that shooting the perp with a hot shot was. When the woman thanks him, you can see she is just as scared of Dredd as she was of the man who held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. The purpose of the law in the future isn’t to save people. It’s to punish wrongdoers. Dredd is good at his job and punishment is what he excels at. His relentless nature and single-minded vision of ‘justice’ is set up within these first few action-packed minutes and his character never wavers as the film progresses.

How did this bike chase develop Dredd as a character?

By being a mini film in its own right with a set up, confrontation, and pay off. Nearly all films follow a 3 Act method of story telling — the conflict is set up, the good guy and the bad guys end up in confrontation (or confrontations), and we get a pay off where somebody wins, normally the good guy. The bike chase and mall stand off in Dredd goes through all 3 acts within just a few minutes. First (Act 1) we are introduced to the bad guys driving recklessly and taking drugs with Dredd in relentless pursuit. Dredd is immediately shown as a tough mother as he speeds through the streets. The reaction of the criminals when they see his bike bearing down on them tells us all we need to know about the dynamic between them. They are scared and they understand how high the stakes have become.

This leads into the confrontation part of the 3 acts as the bad guys and Dredd tear across the city with little regard for those around them. Even when innocent bystanders are mowed down Dredd doesn’t stop and ploughs on in a single-minded quest for justice. His character is shown to be both unflinching and relentless as he reports the deaths with little emotion, just a determined, “They’re going down.” The confrontation continues on foot as the last surviving perp takes a mall worker hostage. Dredd and the criminal trade verbal blows with the perp insisting he has the upper hand. We know he doesn’t. The look on Dredd’s face and his flippant words of, “Yeah, I heard you hot shot,” when the hostage is threatened tell us everything we need to know. Dredd isn’t going to lose this situation. He’s too tough and too experienced. One well-placed incendiary round to the bad guys mouth later and the payoff is complete an Dredd is cemented in the audiences minds as a character of an uncompromising nature who is both brutal and single-minded in his moral code.

And finally… The final confrontation

“As for you Ma-Ma… judgement time.” (Karl Urban, Dredd)

Wait, what? You’ve skipped to the end. It might seem weird to spend the majority of this article talking about an opening action sequence to then skip to the end but Dredd’s final confrontation with Ma-Ma is where we finally get to see the payoff for all of Dredd’s actions. I could pick out dozens of other action sequences in the movie that highlight Dredd’s character but in the final few minutes, as he fights his way to floor 200, his relentless dedication to serving justice is hammered home and his final confrontation with Ma-Ma has only one possible outcome.

Ma-Ma is in many ways a similar character to Dredd. She’s just as ruthless and uncompromising as he is but through a twist of fate is on the other side of the law. That’s not to say she is a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ really. But neither is Dredd. They exist in a brutal world where bad things happen to everyone whether they are perpetrated by drug dealers or policemen.

Ma-Ma, similarly to Dredd, is revealed by her actions. Yes, we have a little bit more exposition spoken by the paramedic (Deobia Oparei) in respect to how she became the drug king pin of Peachtrees but her ruthlessness is shown to us in what she does. She never flinches when ordering people to be skinned alive and her lack of care for the people around her is cemented when she destroys a large part of Peachtrees (including the people who live in it) in a failed attempt to kill the two judges with high-calibre, mounted machine guns. By the end of the film and Ma-Ma and Dredd’s final confrontation we understand that neither character is capable of relenting and only one of them is going to walk away.

Did Dredd really know the bomb wouldn’t go off?

Probably not but by this stage were we ever in any doubt that Ma-Ma was going to fly? Dredd had his woman and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like her blowing him up stop him from dispensing justice. By this stage in proceedings Dredd had shown time and time again that ‘justice’ was his only driving force. His actions and reactions to the things that happened around him were focussed on one thing, bringing Ma-Ma and her clan to justice. Nothing else mattered. He couldn’t be reasoned with in the opening mall stand off and he sure as hell wasn’t going to be reasoned with now.

Didn’t Dredd show a soft side to Anderson at the end?

It’s not marginal, she failed.” (Karl Urban, Dredd)

Dredd and Anderson (Olivia Thirlby)

By the rules set out by Dredd when he first took Anderson under his wing, there is no doubt that the rookie Judge failed in her evaluation. So why did Dredd give her a pass? Wasn’t that against the character traits developed in the rest of the movie? Yes and no. Dredd was single minded in his pursuit of dispensing justice, but Anderson wasn’t a criminal. She was his partner and she also saved his life. Giving her a pass wasn’t against his ‘code’, it was a reward for her work during the assault on Ma-Ma’s fortress. You have to remember that Dredd’s driving force was justice. He had shown time and time again that he would stop at nothing to get this goal. Would failing Anderson, who had shown more than a little spunk of her own, have helped prevent crime in Megacity One? Probably not. She was a talented psychic and tough in her own right. Passing her would arguably have aided with the pursuit of justice. After all, with Anderson by his side Justice would be served. But he didn’t have to explain this. When asked he answered with one word, “Pass.” We didn’t need to be told his motives, we understood them because he was and always will be The Law.

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Ian Ford

Ian Ford

Maths teacher, author, driving instructor, gamer, film buff, comedian, eco warrior, gigolo, prime minister, and fantasist.