Guest Movie Review: Dredd
The two Judge Dredds: For fans, Dredd is the hero of his own comic series; a futuristic lawbringer whose stories have been told in the weekly British comic anthology 2000 A.D. since 1977. In the comic, we were introduced to the futuristic, post-nuclear Mega-City One, whose more traditional types of law enforcement has been replaced by the Judges, exercising the combined powers of judge, jury and executioner as a deterrent for the rampant chaos of the criminals and gangs that stalk the streets. To these fans, Judge Dredd is a big deal, ranked as one of the top all-time comic book characters, in the same league as Batman, Superman and Captain America.
For most people, however, Judge Dredd refers only to the abysmal 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone, of which Dredd’s creator John Wagner has been quoted as saying “the story had nothing to do with Judge Dredd, and Judge Dredd wasn’t really Judge Dredd.” The biggest gripe you’ll hear from fans? Dredd, who in the comics is famous for never removing his helmet, takes his off almost immediately in Stallone’s film. The movie set back Dredd’s Hollywood potential by more than a decade. So when I heard that the iconic comic character was getting another shot at the big screen, I was more than a little surprised. Could a properly-done Dredd flick make up for all the ill will of the previous disaster?
For once, fans needn’t have worried. Dredd, penned by Alex Garland and directed by Vantage Point’s Pete Travis, is so good it leaped straight to my #6 movie of the year. Travis does an excellent job of introducing us to the violent world of Mega-City One, a vast rat-hole sprawling from Boston to Washington DC, with a nuclear wasteland outside its borders. Inside, crime runs rampant, with the men and women of the Hall of Justice fighting a losing battle against the chaos. Judges are stretched so thin that they can only respond to 6% of all reported activity at any given time, and a good chunk of new recruits don’t make it through the first day in the meat grinder. That’s how renowned Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) ends up patrolling with psychic trainee Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), investigating a triple-homicide in the 200-story slum tower block called Peach Trees. But when they arrest a man who has connections to former prostitute/current criminal kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and the distribution of the new mega-drug Slo-Mo, the drug lord responds by activating the building’s security and locking down the complex, trapping the two Judges inside. With no backup on the way and hundreds of criminals looking to claim their heads, Dredd and Anderson must take down the criminal empire that has no intention of letting them leave Peach Trees alive.
One word to describe this Dredd: uncompromising. This is a movie in which you will constantly find yourself shielding your eyes from the vast amounts of blood and gore that practically leaks from the edges of the screen. Men and women are shot, hit by vehicles, crushed, blown up or dropped from great heights, and much like the city’s more cynical pedestrians, the director never shies away from the violence inflicted on his characters, lingering just a bit too long on the desecrated remains of what was once a human being. This is half the fun of Dredd, though the ultra-high body count definitely means that only adults should be watching. There is also a decent amount of slow-motion action present, which some might understandably be wary of after Matrix imitators copied the effect to death. But not only is the slow motion well justified, with most uses being a direct result of somebody’s inhalation of the drug Slo-Mo (which slows the user’s perception to 1% of normal speed), but it’s also superbly done: it combines with the excellent 3D and visceral blood and guts to create surprisingly beautiful and surreal visuals. Travis demonstrates a clear eye here, building wonder but never exclusively relying on it to make his movie.
This is where Garland’s writing comes in. Dredd is less an epic story and more a “day in the life” of the Judges of Mega-City One; you get the feeling that even the survivors of this escapade will reach day two and essentially repeat similar experiences. Much like HBO’s The Wire, Dredd is not really about its characters, but about the city where they live. Mega-City one is populated by criminals and Judges fighting one another, but we’re never allowed to forget that there are millions more of innocent civilians in the crossfire, normal people whose lives can be squashed flat in a moment. The bad guys of course don’t about those who get in their way, but the Judges hardly seem to care either: the murder of an innocent is only another item with which to charge the suspect. It’s an imperfect system, instituted by people with no idea what else to do, and makes for an incredibly fascinating setting for future potential tales.
And while the focus of the story is less character than situation, the fact that Garland (celebrated author of The Beach) manages to write so many great characters into the film makes it all work that much better. Our Judge Dredd, Karl Urban, has had some iconic sci-fi and fantasy roles in his career. Actual stardom has eluded him, but anyone needing proof that he deserves it should take one look at his portrayal of Judge Dredd. Despite never removing a helmet that covers everything but his jaw, Urban manages to convey more emotion with his perpetual scowls and short, biting dialogue than most seasoned actors can put together unmasked. This was an actor who constantly lobbied for shorter and fewer lines from Garland (and really, who in Hollywood does that?), and although the character itself only undergoes minor emotional and logical shifts over the film’s 95 minutes, Urban makes sure you notice every one. The result is arguably the best performance in a genre leading role this year.
But as good as Urban is, Dredd officially belongs to the ladies. Olivia Thirlby’s psychic Judge Anderson and Lena Headey’s sadistic and cruel Ma-Ma bring an added element of excellence to this adaptation. Female antagonists are often a frustrating bunch (especially in genre movies), far too often going all wishy-washy right when their male counterparts would be ramping things up. Thankfully, Ma-Ma never backs down from her throne of evil; she’s a wicked woman who doesn’t shy from skinning someone alive, giving them a dose of Slo-Mo and tossing them from the highest ledge she can find. Completely lacking in conscience, she’s one of the most memorable villains – male or female – this season, thanks to Headey. And Thirlby’s Anderson, no mere sidekick, is Ma-Ma’s polar opposite: generally good-hearted, wanting to make a difference, and willing to uphold society’s laws. Anderson undergoes a huge transformation over the course of the movie in determining the type of Judge she will be. The dynamic between the two characters is fascinatingly caught. Both were raised in the slums, the poorest and most dangerous sections of the city. But while Ma-Ma embraced the darkness, Anderson has grasped onto the goodness in people and fought for it. It’s as though Mega-City One has seen the opening of Pandora’s Box; crime and corruption run rampant through the city, with Anderson (not Dredd or the city’s other more cynical Judges) representing the last ray of hope. Thirlby, given a great opportunity, manages to give one of her best performances to date, and in the process, she steal the show from her older, more experienced castmates.
Thanks to Travis, Garland, Wagner (who was brought in to consult on the production, always a good sign) and their teams, Dredd not only manages to out-perform its cheesy 90’s predecessor, but also many of its modern contemporaries. This is a better comic book adaptation than Green Lantern, The Amazing Spider-Man and even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which practically set the bar for gritty, down-to-earth action dramas. Sure, Garland’s story might not be the most original – it’s essentially The Raid: Redemption with bits of Training Day thrown in – but the fact that it is so well told is a testament to the talent involved. Though odds are against it, Dredd ensured that should any sequels get produced, I’ll gladly be part of the audience. Until then, I’ll just try to convince folks that this violent, cold-blooded monster is indeed a beast worth watching.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for the latest movie reviews.