Karl Urban will need his own wing at Comic-Con before long: Eomer in The Lord of the Rings, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek, and now Judge Dredd in Dredd and its potential (but unlikely) sequels. Dredd is an adaptation of the popular comics about Judge Dredd and his moral absolutism. The film is directed by Pete Travis and stars Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, and Domhnall Gleeson.
In the future, there exists a mega-metropolis (megatropolis?) called Mega-City One; housing a population of eight-hundred-million, the city is rampant with crime, with only the Judges to keep the peace. The Judges act as judge, jury, and executioner. Morally absolute and answerable only to themselves, the Judges strive to eliminate crime at the source and act as a deterrent for prospective criminals.
Judge Dredd has been chosen to test a potential new Judge, Cassandra Anderson. Anderson is special case, she has telepathic abilities far greater than most psychics. Dredd and Anderson follow up on a reported triple-homicide at “Peach Trees”, a slum tower with two-hundred levels under the control of Ma-Ma, a vicious drug lord. Stumbling upon secrets regarding a new drug called “Slo-Mo” (it has the effect its name would suggest), the Judge and the Judge-to-be must fight their way to the top floor in order to deliver judgement and to save their own lives.
If you are expecting something profound in this film, don’t. This is a good old fashioned action film and it makes no pretensions of being anything else, and unlike that atrocious Judge Dredd from 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone, Dredd is actually pretty damn good. The two films are also completely unrelated, so be thankful for that. In a lot of ways the film mimics its lead character, it knows exactly what it is: brutal, efficient, and assured.
Judge Dredd doesn’t grow as a person, he doesn’t gain a new perspective on life, he doesn’t even gain a spunky young female sidekick, at least, not really. Dredd is the most frightening thing in the world: a moral absolutist. Completely confident that what he is doing is right, though its doubtful that he cares, Dredd is a shell of a man, I don’t know what made him the way he is, and I don’t know that I want to (I actually very much do, for your information). Karl Urban plays Dredd with the commitment that he seems to give in every role, and he becomes Dredd. Urban does not give Dredd an emotional arc, and it would be a disservice to the character to do so, he doesn’t remove the helmet, he barely even changes his facial expression. That commitment sells the character, and his selling the character allows the film to work.
Cassandra Anderson is young and untested, with abilities that could make her a particularly effective, and by that I mean lethal, Judge. Occupying a world of grey, rather than Dredd’s black and white, Anderson is faced with what it means to be a Judge and the restrictions, and also the freedoms, that being a Judge comes with. Dredd is more Anderson’s story than it is Dredd’s, he is already an absolute, this is the story of her becoming one. Olivia Thirlby does strong work as Anderson, wisely playing her as someone not caught between two ways of life, but rather as someone finally learning how to pull the trigger. This is a far cry from her breakout performance in Juno, and she handles it well.
Lena Headey, of Game of Thrones fame, portrays Ma-Ma, a former prostitute turned ruthlessly effective drug lord, and addict. Ma-Ma is not a particularly original or well fleshed out villain. Sporting scars, some wild hair, and dry, cracking lips, Ma-Ma is believably brutal, but is very much just a reason to see the reason criminals dread Dredd (sorry). Headey is solid, and anyone who has watched Game of Thrones knows that she can be enjoyably malicious, but the character just isn’t there, and it is easily the most glaring weakness the film possesses.
The special effects are quite good in Dredd, bombastic, but not outlandish, they work well throughout. They might overdo it a bit with the slow motion sequences, but it isn’t distracting. The world of Mega-City One is very well realized, and is a future I could imagine happening, if not in terms of society, then certainly in terms of technology and architecture. “Peach Trees” is futuristic, but also squalid and dirty, much like the Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Unexpectedly, considering the unapologetic nature of the film, the science-fiction elements are subtle and grounded (excepting the scenes when people are thrown off balconies to their deaths, but I’m only mentioning that for the sake of a pun), which is a welcome thing in a genre all too often known for indulging in something worse than the outlandish: the implausible, but Dredd is plausible, at least to the extent it needs to be.
The action is just plain fun, it is loud and fiery, but possesses, or more accurately, Dredd possesses, a certain cold efficiency that differentiates Dredd from many films in the genre. Dredd doesn’t want to go out in a blaze of glory, or win some woman’s heart with his stunningly accurate shooting, he wants to end criminals quickly and efficiently, and he calculates and weighs his options to that effect. The guns the Judges’ possess are interesting, they only fire for their specific Judge and they are capable of shooting a plethora of different types of ammunition. Basically, people die in several different ways and I like that, sicko that I am.
Dredd is certainly not a film of great import, or revolutionary in any way shape or form, but I have to wonder, who the hell cares? I can be as pretentious as the next guy, I mean, I saw Shame in theaters (great film, not for the feint of heart, probably wouldn’t watch it again), but I can also fully appreciate Dredd for what it is: a rollicking good time. Dredd did not do well at the box office (I blame society), and while that doesn’t effect the film’s quality, it does hamstring any possibility for a sequel, which I admittedly would like to see. So I have to say, it would probably be worth your time to watch it if you’re into this kind of thing. I mean, Karl Urban wants you to, and considering he becomes Judge Dredd, it is probably a good idea to acquiesce to his wishes: he is the law.