Karl Urban is a one-man justice squad in the entertaining Dredd, a winning genetic hybrid of grindhouse and graphic novel.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS, PUNISHABLE BY ENCUBEMENT!
In a post-apocalyptic, nuclear-blasted America, humanity is condensed into the sprawling Mega-City One, a metropolis the size of a small nation. The City’s law is in the hands of the Judges, heavily-armed officers who act as judge, jury and executioner all at once. The most dedicated is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), who is assigned to assess rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on her first day out. Anderson, a mutant from the irradiated edges of the City, has failed her entrance exam, but she is given a second chance due to the advantages that her powerful telepathic abilities could bring to the force.
Anderson’s first assignment with Dredd involves investigating a triple homicide in the lawless Peach Trees city block, a 200-story stratoscaper that’s a city onto itself. Peach Trees is ruled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless prostitute-turned-crime lord. Ma-Ma controls the selling and distribution of the drug Slo-Mo, which makes the user experience things at 1% of normal speed. When the Judges arrest one of Ma-Ma’s lieutenants, her empire is threatened, and she shuts down Peach Trees under the guise of a war simulation. Cut off from the outside and faced with hordes of Ma-Ma’s goons, the outgunned and outnumbered Judges must escape the building and bring Ma-Ma to justice.
Mega-City One: Great place to raise your kids.
One of the most iconic of the UK’s comic book characters, Dredd was first brought to the screen in 1995 as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone. It was an infamous failure on both a commercial and critical level, failing to connect with either the fans or the creators of the character. Most heinously, it showed Dredd’s face, something that has never happened in 35 years of Dredd comics. Not only does the new film version of the character keep his helmet on for the entire runtime, it’s an unapologetically graphic, straightforward action film that makes the Stallone misfire seem like a bad dream.
Writer Alex Garland worked closely with Dredd creator John Wagner on the screenplay, resulting in a much truer and more faithful Dredd. In fact, one of the film’s strongest attributes is Garland’s respect for Wagner and his creation. The dialogue may not always be the most scintillating around, and can at times be just shy of clunky, but Garland has a tremendously confident grasp on Dredd’s world and the appropriate tonal mix of brutal violence and black humor. Garland is in fact probably the film’s biggest creative force. The film was eventually taken out of director Pete Travis’ hands, leaving the editing and final cut to Garland himself, although he declined a co-directing credit that he could have rightfully claimed.
Nothing to see here. Please move along.
The result is a film that has a solid and logical foundation. While the first entries in most properties with dreams of franchising seem like little more than set-ups for sequels, this is one of the instances where that approach works on almost a totally subconscious level. Aside from an opening voiceover by Dredd, there is little exposition given in the film’s first act, leaving most of the details of Mega-City’s ins and outs to be inferred from the turns of the plot. It’s tremendously easy to get swept up into the setting, even to the point of forgetting that this is, in many ways, an almost-standard future dystopia. By restricting virtually all of the film into the Peach Trees complex and only hinting at things on a macrocosmic level, Garland leaves the rest of Dredd’s world to be explored in future installments and allows the audience to focus primarily on the characters.
Just like the setting, it’s also easy to sympathize with Dredd himself, despite his seeming lack of humanity and compassion. The reason for this is Karl Urban’s committed and intelligent performance. Urban never treats Dredd as a cartoon character, approaching him with the proper amount of theatricality and restraint. He has the unenviable task of emoting almost entirely through his voice and mouth, since Dredd never removes his helmet, giving the character a Man With No Name mystique.
I fought the law, and the law beat me to a bloody pulp.
Urban isn’t as bulky as Stallone, although he’s fit as can be, and that helps to sell the character as just a cop with a really hard beat. Dredd isn’t the Punisher. He’s simply the most successful and effective gunman in a city filled with Punishers. Dredd doesn’t see himself as a superhero, and Urban doesn’t approach him as such. His grim persona masks a hidden vulnerability, something Anderson sees in him during their first encounter, when she’s asked by the Chief Judge to scan his mind. Dredd knows that showing weakness is detrimental to his job, and he holds his job above all else in his life. That doesn’t mean that weakness isn’t there.
Olivia Thirlby might even have a more difficult task than Urban in bringing life to Judge Anderson. It would be tempting to approach the character as the typical rookie cop partnered with a vastly more experience partner, but Thirlby plays Anderson with the right mix of confidence and doubt. Anderson has more faith in herself as a person than she does as a Judge, putting her in direct contrast with Dredd, who devotes himself entirely to that same role. Anderson’s deceptively soft appearance masks a large reservoir of courage, as well as a wicked gleam of cunning, and Thirlby nails her performance completely while also having fun with Anderson’s unique sense of humor. Urban and Anderson have an immediate chemistry that grows quickly and organically over the course of the film.
I know what you’re thinking, punk. No, really. I know what you’re thinking.
Ma-Ma is a bit of a missed opportunity, although this has little to do with Lena Hedey’s performance and more to do with the story itself. Ma-Ma’s appearance does most of her characterization, for better or for worse. Covered in tattoos, with a massive scar on her face and the telltale teeth of a meth addict, Ma-Ma is the very definition of “rode hard and put away wet.” Headey avoids playing Ma-Ma as a caricature, however, injecting the character with a mix of world-weary ennui and psychotic anger. She is both brutally ambitious and possessed of a death wish on a global scale, making her criminal activities seem like a way to further the end of the world as way to end of herself. However, Ma-Ma doesn’t get a tremendous amount of build-up or backstory, and her rise to power is a story only hinted at, a loss the film could have easily fixed with a few extra scenes (and at 95 minutes, there’s more than enough room for them).
The film’s 3D effects are limited, and for the most part, completely unnecessary. While it does provide some interesting depth to the cinematic canvas, and it thankfully avoids the “comin’ at ya” gimmick, the only time it truly enhances the scenes is during the depiction of a person under the influence of Slo-Mo. Water droplets and dust particles take on an unexplainable solidity, the world seeming like a dream. Even Paul Leonard-Morgan‘s industrial score goes from noisy tribal drums to an ethereal soundscape that is itself passing by at 1% speed. The drug’s allure is quite obvious, as is the danger inherent in the disconnection it engenders between the user and reality.
Ma-Ma Superior jump the gatling gun.
Dredd is a purposefully and unashamedly over-the-top film in the true grindhouse fashion. It’s exaggerated violence has a strange grace and twisted humor to it, and it never pretends to be more than it is. The film lets you know this almost immediately, with opening titles rendered in 3D Impact font and a title card with a Dolby signature like an atom bomb. It has no pretensions and almost no subtlety but is possessed of a distinct and assured self-awareness, as well as an invested cast, that make it imminently entertaining even while pointing out its flaws. The verdict is in, and Dredd is an ultraviolent good time.
However, that pun is punishable by 5 years in the Cubes…so I really must be going.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and a fugitive from the Fashion Police.