I am not an expert on Judge Dredd comics. As much as I might love the idea of dystopian future stories where the protagonist is a law enforcer who is so invested in the idea of justice that he ignores all elements of mercy, I just never got into them. The fact that the series runs in the British magazine 2000 AD and has been ongoing since 1977 might account for part of that; I’m not very good about following ongoing series regularly when they’re published by the American big two, so something that runs primarily across the pond is just doomed from the start.
Anyway, I just finished watching the 2012 film adaptation Dredd, so I figured I’d share some thoughts.
The plot in this movie reminds me a lot of Die Hard, but with sadistic drug lords in place of German terrorists and a pair of cops in place of John McClane. It’s good action pretty much the whole way through, and I didn’t notice any glaring plot holes that might distract from the fun. Dredd was suitably implacable, and his partner, the rookie Judge Anderson wasn’t annoying or incompetent like you might expect the newcomer character who can have everything explained to them to be. Most refreshingly, she never ends up in a situation where Dredd has to rescue her; though she does get caught by the bad guys at one point, she frees herself using her own resourcefulness (and a booby trapped side-arm).
Philosophically, the central question the film asks is about the nature of justice (surprise, surprise). Dredd is an old veteran who lives by the rule of the law and metes out consequences for violations without hesitation regardless of circumstances. Anderson, the fresh-faced rookie who joined the force because she wants to do a bit of good (an offhand line about the fact that Judges are only capable of responding to 6% of all crimes reported suggests that’s a very, very small bit), believes in a more reasoned approach that takes into account the larger situation. The fact that she’s psychic and can easily read peoples’ minds as a method of interrogation emphasizes that she has to deal with her empathy towards perpetrators.
As I understand it, the spirit of the original series is one of satire, with some pointed commentary about the nature of justice and how it should be carried out. Dredd’s our protagonist, but whether he is a hero is highly questionable. Of course, in this film we’re given plenty of opportunities to see the parameters of Dredd’s code in action; he punishes criminals according to their crimes without hesitation, but he does maintain a level of concern for innocents (most prominently, the climax of the film has him faced with the dilemma of risking the lives of a quarter of the residents of the building where he’s been trapped in order to carry out the execution of the gang leader who’s been trying to kill him all through the movie). Of course, the preservation of innocent life seems to be a secondary concern, because when faced with the dilemma between punishment and rescue, he chooses to carry out the punishment, opting for a method of execution that he can only hope will prevent a bomb from going off (it’s an action movie, so this works out okay for everyone involved–well, everyone except the criminal).
You could make an argument about Dredd’s level of certainty with this decision, since he reasons that throwing a person down 200 stories should put the bomb trigger out of range, but whatever Dredd’s level of certainty, it’s not absolute. That’s an interesting contrast with an earlier scene in the film where Dredd notes that punishment can’t be carried out without perfect certainty that a suspect is guilty. Whatever the actual calculus is, it seems apparent that a risk of harming innocents is acceptable so long as Dredd is certain that his suspect deserves punishment. Justice at all costs I guess?
Of course, this is all predicated on a certain definition for justice that seems to revolve primarily around punitive measures for transgressors rather than corrective measures for victims. I know that in terms of human justice, especially as it relates to issues of crime, punishment for criminals is a necessary part of maintaining a just system. In certain cases, like those of homicide and other forms of irreversible injury, the victim may have no other recourse but to see the criminal punished. Those are instances where the crime cannot be made right, and our sense of right and wrong urges us towards taking some kind of action. This seems to be the kind of justice that Dredd is most concerned with.
It’s not necessarily the kind of justice I find most interesting though. I’ll try to explore that more next time.