Fans of Judge Dredd can let out a long-awaited sigh of relief, “Dredd” delivers a fast-paced, gritty, darkly humorous and unflinchingly brutal portrayal of the classic British anti-hero that far surpasses 1995’s universally-panned “Judge Dredd” starring Sylvester Stallone.
Director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland have managed to mix a grindhouse movie, high concept sci-fi and character study into one film. Usually, that results in an incoherent mess, but they’ve instead crafted an ultra-violent thrill-ride of a film. This is helped in no small part by Karl Urban’s spectacular performance as Judge Dredd — and, yes, he keeps his helmet on the whole time.
“Dredd” stars Karl Urban as Judge Dredd, the most grizzled and world-weary member of the Judges, a group of future cops who have the authority to sentence and execute criminals on sight. Dredd’s beat is Mega-City One, a sprawling, cancerous metropolis that stretches from Boston to Washington D.C. with a population of 800 million. Robotics have rendered nearly all human jobs obsolete, resulting in near-universal unemployment and record levels of violence. This is all quickly established in the first few minutes of the film through a voice-over by Urban.
At its heart, “Dredd” is a classic cop-out-of-water film like “Die Hard.” It follows Judge Dredd as he unexpectedly discovers a drug ring operating out of a 200-story crime-ridden residential tower named Peach Trees on a “routine” triple homicide call. After Peach Trees goes into lockdown, Dredd loses all communication with the outside world and has to climb through 200 floors of bloodthirsty scumbags to confront their leader, Mama, played by Lena Headey. Accompanying him on this odyssey is Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who possesses the psychic ability to read minds. “Dredd” opens on Anderson’s first day and it’s Dredd’s job to assess whether she has what it takes to be a judge. This fledgling mentor/mentee relationship provides the backbone of the film, as Dredd struggles to even out his paternal instincts with his hard-nosed, no-nonsense attitude and Anderson eventually comes to develop her own powers and morality with Dredd’s guidance.
After a quick montage of Dredd suiting up, the action starts immediately with Dredd pursuing a car full of drug users down a cramped highway. The drug of choice is “slo-mo,” a new narcotic that makes time feel as if it’s going at 1% of it’s normal speed. “Slo-mo” creates a plot device that allows for impressive cinematography, making a bullet ripping open someone’s face look more like a ballet than a crime. Think “bullet time” from “The Matrix” cranked up to 11 and in 3D, to boot. Needless to say, it makes for some absolutely beautiful violence.
“Dredd” is a brutal film that has earned its R rating. Within the first 30 minutes alone, Dredd dispatches enough baddies to fill the roster of a professional baseball team. During the course of the story, throats are crushed, people are skinned alive, multiple heads are blown up and there is no shortage of creeps falling 200-stories to solid concrete. One of those falls, in particular, near the end of the movie is responsible for one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous scenes of violence I’ve ever witnessed and is sure to be a talking point for everyone who sees the film.
Director Pete Travis is channeling pure John Carpenter in this movie. From the bleak settings and synth-heavy soundtrack to the hyper-stylized violence and hints of body horror, this film would feel right at home next to Carpenter’s early output like “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Halloween.” Travis has also sprinkled several nods to observant Judge Dredd fans into the story, including a giant “CHOPPER” graffiti tag on the inside of a building, someone wearing a “drokk!” T-shirt and several subtle references to “mutants.”
While Thirlby does a fine job as Judge Anderson, Karl Urban stands out from the pack for his portrayal of Judge Dredd. Urban signed on to the picture knowing he wouldn’t get to show his face and he clearly prepared for the unique acting opportunity. There are several close-up shots of Dredd’s mug as he gazes upon the violence he has wrought and his scowl looks like it could have been chiseled out of stone. It was a brave move taking such a role and hopefully the public will recognize and reward Urban for his performance, even if they can’t recognize his face. Also worth noting is Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Mama’s introverted and abused tech assistant. Even though his character is played as weak and afraid, under the constant fear of Mama’s strict hand, Gleeson still commands the screen every time he appears with a nervous energy that is highly reminiscent of character actor Brad Dourif.
The real star of the show isn’t Urban or Thirlby or even Gleeson, though — it’s Dredd’s gun, the lawgiver. The lawgiver is a devastating weapon with modes like “Rapid Fire,” “High Ex” and “Armor Piercing.” Dredd needs only whisper the name of a mode into the barrel of the gun to activate that type of ammo. This is shown best early in the film when Dredd calls a criminal a “hot shot,” secretly triggering the lawgiver’s “Hot Shot” mode. Dredd then proceeds to fire a flare into the perp’s mouth that literally melts his head from the inside out. In a later scene he uses “Incendiary” mode to send napalm flying into a crowd of dozens, burning them all alive. Each lawgiver is also DNA-matched to each judge. When Dredd or Anderson pick up their lawgiver, a screen flashes “ID OK!” letting them know the gun is ready for use. When Anderson’s gun eventually does say “ID FAIL,” let’s just say that the person holding it winds up having a really, really, just plain terrible day.
Not everything in “Dredd” works as well as Urban and the lawgiver, though. There were a couple of cliched action scenes. In fact, it’s the same cliched situation that occurs twice. For both Judge Anderson and Judge Dredd, there comes a moment where they could have easily been killed by a bad guy standing over them, but Dredd and Anderson instead goad their attackers into hackneyed super-villain type banter until someone can show up to save the day. With so much that feels fresh in “Dredd” it was disappointing to see one of the action genre’s biggest tropes repeated here.
Another aspect of the film that was a bit confusing was Travis’s decision to use extremely contemporary looking technology, clothing and vehicles for a story set hundreds of years in the future. At one point we are introduced to a group of skateboarders that Travis could have just picked up at the local skatepark in 2012 America. Where’s all the hoverboards? Where’s the new aesthetics? How does Dredd have a weapon that can take voice commands and test DNA, but people still drive 1980s minivans? It just doesn’t make sense and, while some people won’t care, I found myself being taken out of the story a bit at times because of it.
Ultimately, “Dredd” succeeds, despite its flaws, for the same reason that “The Avengers” did earlier this year: trust between the creatives and the producers. DNA Films, who produced “DREDD,” trusted Alex Garland to write a script using the Judge Dredd from the comics. They trusted Pete Travis to try new 3D technology. They trusted Karl Urban to turn in a performance using just his chin and they trusted the people who told them this movie needed to be a hard R to work. “Dredd” is further proof that the best comic book movies, and the best movies in general, happen when you hand the reigns over to people who truly love and understand the property and then let them do whatever the hell they want.
“Dredd” opens in theaters September 21.