Minor spoilers for Dredd 3d follow.
The last few years have seen comic books become the go-to source material for cinema, from Blade and X-Men right through to The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers. Most have featured women characters although those that focus solely on our favourite heroines are better forgotten in comparison to the glut of popular movies based on leading men. Team titles too have been hit and miss with women generally being judged for their looks before their character, although Helen Mirren and Angelina Jolie have both stolen the show in Red and Wanted respectively. Still, it was annoying for many fans to see Black Widow waving her ass in posters and always with that zipper down, despite her greater than expected screen time. Now one film has single-handedly bucked that trend, passing the Bechdel test, and with the best portrayal of women in an action film I have seen in years: Dredd.
Put simply, and this is extraordinary, there is no difference between the portrayal of male and female characters in this film. The women are not sexualised, weaker, shown less, or more emotional, and their wardrobes are genderless, but neither are they simply rendered as personality devoid hard-asses... The women characters are excellent characters who happen to be women.
Judge Dredd. Britain's favourite hero, dispensing the law in a future police state, satirising the very real and ever increasing threat of authoritarianism to our lives. Brutalised in a previous Sylvester Stallone movie that turned him from seriously stern Judge to camp crusader, Dredd is back with a grim and gritty film that harks back to his earliest strips.
Judge Anderson. A long-time friend of Dredd's, a tense friendship at times, Anderson is a female Judge with psychic powers. In the film we see Anderson as a rookie, sent out with Dredd on an evaluation run. Her outfit, her armour, is near identical to Dredd's - the singular difference being her lack of helmet, to better allow her psychic abilities. Anderson is portrayed as being more sympathetic than Dredd, but then again, so is just about every other Judge. In the comics, Anderson has been around since the early days and proved so popular that she headlines her own spin-off series, Anderson: Psi-Division.
Ma-Ma. The villain of the piece and a complete psychopath. This woman runs her criminal gang with an iron fist, torturing and killing anyone who disappoints her or stands in her way. Her domain is the Peach Trees 200 story tower block, housing those who are sworn to her, and others who live in fear. Ma-Ma does not slink her way around or use her womanly wiles; she is fucked up, brutal and efficient.
We open on Mega-City One, a massive city-state holding hundreds of millions of citizens in squalor on the east coast of North America, the result of an explosive population problem and a nuclear war that has devastated the surrounding environment. The low budget ensures that this is a near future, banged up cars and fashion not hugely different from our own; at one point a sole iPhone captures an event amongst the poverty of those around. Dredd (Karl Urban) is commanded by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) to take a failed rookie out on assessment. Due to her exceptionally high psychic abilities, it is hoped that Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) will pass, despite Dredd's disapproval of this second chance.
We're told how few crimes the Judges can actually respond to, despite their numbers, and Anderson picks a triple homicide at Peach Trees: a warning shot from Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who first skinned her victims, then fed them Slo-Mo - a drug that slows the perception of time to 1% - before tossing them from the 200th floor. The two Judges arrive, apprehending Kay (Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma's leading gang members as Anderson detects his guilt in the skinning, before the block shuts down, giant blast shields trapping all within. It's unfortunate for the remaining film that The Raid came first as comparisons with Evans' film are inevitable, but the 3D lends Dredd an extra edge: the Slo-Mo drug provides a narrative reason for the 3D to take place, transporting you into the head of the user, frequently before violence occurs in beautifully ugly detail. Bullets shred people into meaty chunks, distort faces before bursting out through teeth and skin, while others fall to their deaths across the viewers vision, exploding upwards and outwards in shining arcs of flesh and blood.
As the Judges drag their prisoner behind them, Kay threatens Anderson with what is likely to happen to her, a pretty woman, when caught. Realising she is psychic he thinks of her in violent sexual situations with him, in a horrific moment almost targeted at those audience members wishing for more sex with their violence, shown their desires in its non-glamorised fucked up reality. Later Anderson interrogates him by stepping into her mind and Kay delights in tormenting her, only to find that she is the one with all the power. He imagines oral pleasure and instead finds his penis ripped from his pathetic body; coming to, he pisses himself. This particular trope happens a few times, with someone assuming they have power over Anderson only to find themselves very wrong, or very dead.
Ma-Ma is a different story. While Anderson is shown to be no more weak than her fellow male Judge, Ma-Ma is shown as being far more intelligent and sadistic than any of the men in her gang. She is utterly terrifying and cold, and it is perfectly easy to believe that the entire block is far more frightened of her than they are of the remote and isolated law. This is no prancing villainess in a bikini or split open dress; Ma-Ma is a blood soaked killer who always has a long term plan. There is even a scene with her in the bath which is completely non-sexualised, a level of welcome restraint that seems incredible. When Anderson is brought before her there is no flicker of emotion either way, she orders no torture not out of female solitude but because she can still see a way of coming out of this intact.
Original Dredd creator John Wagner was on hand as consultant throughout filming for writer and producer by Alex Garland, and nixed a scene where Anderson and Dredd kiss - Judge Dredd doesn't do romance, and neither does Anderson. Anderson does however show more empathy than her colleague at certain times due to her ability to see inside the minds of the perpetrators. She sees one of the gang members as having been tortured and kept there against his will and bases her judgement of him with that in mind. Earlier however, when hesitating over killing a man who begs for his life, she shoots. Sitting behind me at the cinema was long-time Judge Dredd artist Cam Kennedy, who nodded, "that's my girl!"
The satirical nature of Dredd as a character, that extrapolation of a future grounded in the frightening conservative politics of today, has meant that while Dredd has lived a long and prosperous life in the UK, he has never been welcomed in the US. The film needs to make budget to be granted a sequel, and it will be a crying shame if Anderson doesn't get a second outing alongside Joe Dredd.
Dredd is low budget but very ambitious and ultra-violent fare, an action thriller and, most unusually for a comic film, an 18/R certificate. There will be those who say this isn't the Dredd film we've been waiting for, that Urban isn't growly enough, or that his helmet isn't exactly as it should be. To me though, this is exactly the film that early Dredd strips deserve: the leaner, younger Dredd with the heavy violence and pressure cooker environment that the police state dictates, and the complete lack of sexism and misogyny that makes Dredd always such a great read. The cast, in their entirety, have nailed the restraint of characters living in this world.
And on top of all that, it's an action film where women are equal.