I won’t lie, I was excited about Dredd from the get-go. Never a huge fan of the 90’s Stallone version or the comic series, my interest was purely based on the trailer, in which it was clear the plot for the new re-imagining was ripped from the superb The Raid: Redemption. I’m not particularly opposed to unoriginality if the original is awesome, and the copy looks good, too. I was all set to love the movie…and it turns out I did. Dredd is a great action flick.
The film immediately introduces MEGA CITY ONE, a future megalopolis of concrete and steel stretching from Boston to Washington D.C. A harsh sun bears down on limitless asphalt and sprawl engulfing the entire screen. This is dystopia. However, it is not a future without justice, which has evolved into a Draconian violent paradigm enforced by the Judges (capitalized). They are an organization of enforcers who stand as judge, jury, executioner, lawyer, and Seal Team 6 member. They posses an entire arsenal of bullets, explosives, gas, and fire bombs all neatly packaged into a really awesome handgun, which we’ll get to in more detail later. The other, little people, seem to exist in a state of only poverty, and live in gigantic apartment complexes called Blocks.
Alex Garland, known for his collaborations with Danny Boyle, penned the script this time around, which focuses the story on the eponymous judge’s siege of an apartment tower run by a drug lord-ess? Whatever the female term is. The result is a much more effective and visceral, without being overly claustrophobic, action romp that quickly wipes away all memories of the Stallone version and it’s epic sci-fi plot. The audience is not burdened with saving the world and clones and future-wild-west-hillbilly-cyborgs. Not to mention ridiculous uniforms. Apparently 90’s costume designers thought future warriors would only need to protect their shoulders and crotch. Back to the topic at hand: Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), while on an evaluation run of rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), gets assigned a seemingly mundane triple homicide in the apartment block Peach Trees. The first name Cassandra is thematically important because she’s psychic. While investigating, they discover the complex is run by a drug syndicate headed by the ruthless Mama (Lena Headey), who discovers judges are on her trail, locks down the block, and hell starts breaking loose.
I’m going to try and stop comparing Dredd with the 90’s version now, because it’s just a completely better film. Urban does not play a character on screen, but instead a force of nature. We never see him remove his helmet, which is a nice touch. After all, there is no human face beneath the mask. Dredd is a justice machine. When this Judge Dredd proclaims that “he is the law,” it comes off as a literal truth. When the bad guys being to bear down on the heroes, he does not panic, call off the rookie’s evaluation, or try to escape. Instead, he decides to go after Mama to dole out justice, while continuing to administer tests to the younger Judge Anderson. Judge Dredd is methodical, in command, and never unsure. The correct path is clear to him, because it’s written down in a legal rule book. There is crime, thus is must be punished. End of story.
Anderson is also an interesting character in her own right, surprisingly. She’s new to the beat, but by no means stupid or incompetent. Without giving away plot points, she comes up big towards the end, refusing to let Judge Dredd hog up all the heroic spotlight. How post-modern! Mama is…well…she’s just mean. But I guess Headey is good in that sense. Honestly, her Cersei lannister is a scarier antagonist. But not all fictional characters are created equal.
Hey, but where’s the action?! It’s here, and it’s glorious. Who knew tripods and steady tracking shots could make intelligible, yet still frenetic and fast-paced action scenes? You wouldn’t know it from recent Hollywood flicks, where Jason Bourne and James Bond MMA grapple ambiguously ethnic bad guys while the camera flails around on a bungee cord. The film uses surprisingly little CGI, for a sci-fi outing, and the action seems to progress with real weight and density. This film stands out as especially violent. I don’t mean conceptually. There’s no animal rape or forced abortions. I mean visually. When someone is shot, we don’t just see them brush off a small red stain and keep going. Bullets shred flesh, fire burns for real, and extreme heights disassemble the entire human apparatus. Much of the movie involves a drug called SLO-MO, which slows down the perception of time for the user, even if he is being shot or, say, thrown off a skyscraper. The Judge’s handgun is a thing of excessively violent beauty. It comes equipped with bullets, anti-armor rounds, explosives, fire things etc. They’re also DNA locked to their owners, which I think is a good idea to implement even in the present. Get on it, science! Anyway, I hope by the time future gun manufacturers invent these bad boys the 2nd amendment will let us buy them.
I also want to make quick mention of Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score, which fits the movie beautifully. The techno-industrial soundtrack ramps up action and chase scenes perfectly, and get the audience pumped. The production as a whole, though able and convincing, can’t quite hide it’s relatively low budget. The Judges’ motorcycles look like they were built with cardboard in half an afternoon. Luckily, the micro-focus of the plot lends itself to a small-ish production, and the result is undoubtedly a quality product.
Dredd is unfortunately not without its flaws, most of which are plot related. We see baffling signs of humanity from Judge Dredd towards the end of the film, which I choose to assume were strong-armed in by producers. I’m also confused as to why criminals wouldn’t generally be aware judges’ guns are DNA locked to their owners…Finally, the film is about 15 minutes too long, but there are worse crimes. Dredd is a great action romp, and you should see it.
P.S- If you haven’t seen The Raid: Redemption, you should. Here’s a clip.