For a movie that is about brutal violence and maintaining a dark and nihilistic tone throughout, Dredd sure was a pretty film. This second attempt on a theatrical feature about the futuristic cop who serves as judge, jury, and executioner is an exercise in grit and violence, with just a hint of self-satire to keep the whole thing quite entertaining throughout, but its best asset is the visual aesthetic, which makes the ugly world that we find these characters in look quite striking. This seems especially notable, given that the film utilizes simplicity in its structure to keep from feeling to empty overall, but as a fairly non-complex action picture, it has plenty of time to look and feel like a well-made, stripped down genre flick, with plenty of thrills and gunplay to keep up the excitement. For what Dredd has attempted to do, it does it well enough to satisfy the law that Dredd swears by.
Judge Dredd: Negotiation’s over. Sentence is death.
Based on the 2000 AD comic strip, Judge Dredd, this film takes place in a dystopian future society that is plagued by overpopulation and corruption. Law enforcement officers known as ‘Judges’ are tasked with keeping the peace by any means necessary, which allows them the power of judge, jury and executioner. One particular Judge, Dredd (Karl Urban), occupies the metropolis known as Mega-City One and upholds the law above everything.
The film is basically a day in the life for Dredd, as he is tasked with testing out a rookie Judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who is young and seemingly under qualified, yet possess psychic powers, which could give her an edge on the streets. After arriving at a murder scene inside of a 200-story slum, Dredd and Anderson quickly find themselves at odds with the building’s resident drug lord and gang leader, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). The Judges have arrested one of Ma-Ma’s henchmen, Kay (Wood Harris), which has forced Ma-Ma to lock down the entire building and alert everyone inside that she wants the Judges dead, in order to keep them from getting Kay back to headquarters and interrogating him. Dredd and Anderson are now forced to stop all who oppose them and hopefully make it to the 200th floor, where they can then stop Ma-Ma for good and provide justice for all, of course.
There are several things that I enjoyed about this movie, which kept it from becoming a little overdone, given that it essentially plays out like a video game. I was really into the ‘one long day’ approach, rather than an attempt at something more grand scale, like the 1995 adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. Dredd plays out like a one-shot cop adventure story, with plenty of bloody violence. I also really liked the attempt at characterization. Dredd is what he needs to be, without going through sudden character changes over the course of one day. At the same time, Anderson is a rookie getting a taste of what will be required of her. I guess it is really the simplicity that pleased me, but the film has plenty of fun with its other concerns as well.
A large element of this film surrounds the use of an addictive drug called ‘Slo-Mo’, which slows the user’s perception of time down to 1% of normal. This leads to wonderfully filmed sequences that must have been shot with the Phantom camera, as it contains super slow-motion depictions of action, matched with a great use of vibrant colors in a world so dark and grimy. I started out by mentioning how pretty this film is and I really meant it. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has shot a gorgeous film in regards to depicting a wasteland environment that is filled with violence and criminal activities. Along with these ‘slo-mo’ scenes, the widescreen presentation is quite fitting in opening up this world just enough to fill the frame with detail and deliver proper cinematic justice, which is required by Dredd. I should also note that Dredd has been shot in 3D, which is well utilized, as it does a good job of straddling the line between over-the-top 3D and adding a good sense of depth.
As Dredd, Karl Urban excels at being an intimidating force who can convincingly act as one is willing to distribute the law as he sees fit, day after day. True to the comic, we never see Dredd’s face, under his helmet, and the part we do see is permanently set to an uncomforting frown. Urban fills the boots well as a stoic action lead who does not so much crack wise as he delivers deadpan moments of humor (all based on his unwavering regard for the law) in an otherwise somber film. As Anderson, Thirlby is quite fitting to provide the minimal amount of emotion we need for this film. We get just enough backstory and Thrilby acquits herself well, given her small stature, to fit in this world as a judge. I wish there was a bit more to get out of Headey as Ma-Ma, but she infuses enough punk-rock comic book zest in her performance, that the villain-of-the-day approach is menacing enough.
I would like to think that director Pete Travis is as much a fan of the comic as I know screenwriter/producer Alex Garland is, as the two, along with the rest of the production team involved, really seemed to deliver a film that is true to its roots. Dredd delivers at basically being The Raid: Redemption set in a world akin to Blade Runner, and this is a good thing. It may not to match up to either, but it is prettier than The Raid (bigger budget) and less cerebral than Blade Runner (It’s about a dude in a helmet shooting people), which sets it apart as a fun little action picture, with some great comic book elements to work with. I would also be remiss if I were to not mention the sweet industrial score by Paul Leonard-Morgan.
The action is certainly up to par. I have already praised the visuals, but the production design and use of practical sets works very well to Dredd’s advantage. Shot in South Africa, the world-building in Dredd is just enough to get across the idea of this dirty future we inhabit. The action we see if stylish and very R-rated. Dredd’s weapon of choice is the ‘Lawmaker’, which has voice-controlled ammunition options and provides Dredd with plenty of ways to dispatch his foes, when he’s not just using brute strength to do so. The film is quite brutal and one can do what they want with how they want to take the dour nature of the film in general, but I think there is enough of a solid comic vibe that had me looking past these things.
I could get into things that maybe hamper the film’s quality a bit. While I do enjoy simplicity in a film like this, one could just boil the film down to Dredd going floor by floor and blasting away an assortment of different foes, just as a player of a standard video game shooter proceeds up through higher and higher levels, with harder and harder enemies to face. The use of a psychic character also opens up various inconsistencies, if one thinks too hard about it, regardless of how much the film decides to explain regarding Anderson’s abilities. And there is the case of one foe Dredd faces, who decides to start ‘monologuing’ in the most convenient way possible. All that said, these are minor quibbles for a film with little on its mind other than delivering a fun, excessively violent, experience. It may seem repetitive, but the film felt paced well enough and clocked in at 90 minutes, which I was fine with.
Dredd 3D makes Stallone’s Judge Dredd look like the Batman and Robin equivalent in a series that features another entry that is much different and darker in tone. This superior redo of bringing the Judge Dredd character to screen is pretty much what I would want out of it, given the limited scope of the film as a whole. Urban and Thirlby were solid, the film had a great look that I appreciated, and the action delivered. Dredd was not a film I was eager to see in its beginning phases, but it turned into a solid genre exercise. I have made my judgment and a day in the life of Dredd proved to be a violent and stylishly good time.
Judge Dredd: In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law… I am the law.