3 out of 5
Matt Smith’s formative Dredd novels are down to whether or not you like the writer’s take on the character. This may seem obvious, but ol’ Joe is, for as limited as he may seem, a rather unique character to write for, as his unchanging nature presents a challenge for writers looking to bring a new point of view. The approach is often to just sprinkle Dredd atop antics and drop in with a fist of justice when appropriate, but my favorite writers project actions on to Joe and find nuance in the way he directly and indirectly (but often directly, heh) ends up affecting things. Smith’s approach is maybe more risky in a way, as he actually allows Joe to be human. And admittedly, it doesn’t sit well with me, which certainly colors my feeling toward his Year Two story, Down and Out. Every now and then, the fine line on which Smith treads – dipping into “classic” Dredd mode; teeter-tottering into the unsureness of a rookie – provides some interesting insights, generally when those doses of humanity are tempered by Joe’s “programming.” But then the language will get too emotive for my tastes, and Joe’s doubts seem out of character. But again, I very much think this is a YMMV scenario.
The other factor here is how Smith’s plots seem to be structured. The core of the story is really, really tight: the title is true to form, with Joe completely slaughtered in a brutal beatdown (and more) and then stranded in one of the worst blocks, and having to struggle his way free, maintaining his hard-lined mentality the whole while. This leads to some really tense moments, expertly articulated and with some ace choreographed action. But then there’s the patchwork elements: it’s Year Two, so we have to insert a subplot about people not trusting the Judge yet; Rico’s just been sent to Titan, so insert occasional thoughts regarding his brother (which is where that human element often comes out); and we apparently need a big explosion to cap things off, so insert a conspiracy and ante up in scale towards the end. To me, these read as pieces – not necessarily organic to the main story, giving those sections dedicated to them a bit of drift.
Within those pieces are some sharp concepts, and though I’m ragging on the way Matt gives Joe a personality, when he drops back into stone-cold mode, he has some pretty perfect zingers and moments. And ultimately, Down and Out stays true to its premise by keeping the story short – when it makes its asides, you’re only a few pages away from returning to the main storyline, funneled back along for its tense ride.