My how things would be different today if in 1995, instead of getting Sylvester Stallone in “Judge Dredd,” we were treated to director Pete Travis’ “Dredd.” And I’m not just talking about visual effects advances in the last 17 years. “Dredd,” starring Karl Urban as the helmeted anti- hero, does classic, ’80s and ’90s-style action better than a lot of films in the ’80s and ’90s did.
Forget needless character development and side plots — writer Alex Garland’s (“28 Days Later …,” “Never Let Me Go”) adaptation of the John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra comic drops us straight into the action and executes the plot with video game-like precision. Urban’s Dredd is an immediately likable badass, armed with as many great one-liners as he has different kinds of ammunition in his all-in-one handgun-carbine hybrid.
“Dredd” plays out a lot like another of 2012’s popular little action movies, “The Raid: Redemption.” Both use the straightforward premise of a skilled hero trapped in a dangerous slum building controlled by a ruthless crime lord (in this case lady).
Dredd is a judge of the Hall of Justice in Mega City One, a concrete jungle stretching from D.C. to Boston built amidst the ruins of the world that we know today. With crime rampant, judges are granted the powers of law enforcement and the legal system all rolled into one — judge, jury and executioner. All we know about Dredd is that he plays everything by the book, but he’s far from a softie.
The film occurs over the course of just a few hours. Dredd gets assigned to assess a rookie judge named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a young woman that that has failed most of the judge tests, but possesses powerful psychic abilities deemed valuable to the Hall. She joins him on patrol, though they both get more than just a test when they respond to a triple homicide call at a 200-story residence called Peach Trees. The building has been gang-controlled for years, but now just one woman rules the whole place, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute who peddles an inhaled narcotic called Slo-Mo that causes the brain to experience time at a 100th of its normal speed. When Dredd and Anderson threaten her operation, she locks the building down with intentions of killing them.
That’s the gist of it. No side plots or secondary characters bogging things down, and Travis doesn’t overindulge the sci-fi elements of the film either. All the futuristic technology is rather self-explanatory and none of it is integral to understanding the movie. It’s all style. Technically, the Slo-Mo drug could have been any kind of drug in terms of fitting the purpose of the story, but it ends up crucial to creating the movie’s visual identity..
“Dredd” is an exceptionally bloody film, yet most of it is CGI, so its violence is comparable to the quality of a really graphic video game. Actually, think of the most graphically bloody video game you’ve played and up the level of gory detail. Lots of smashed in heads and stuff. It would be great if it didn’t look as fake, but it fits with the extremely lucid, glossy aesthetic of the movie.
Slow motion will usually cheapen the look of a film because it’s so overused, but Travis works it in as part of the charm. It’s so violent and fast-paced that allowing the audience to experience certain scenes “under the influence of Slo-Mo” radically changes the look and feel of what’s going on and helps form the film’s thumbprint.
One-liners will do the same thing as bad slow motion, but a majority of these lines work really well between the context they’re used in and Urban’s delivery. Most of the time a writer has to completely contrive them, but Garland crafts these zingers exclusively based on what’s happening in the film. He only reaches in a couple of instances.
“Dredd” has a bizarre sense of humor between the dialogue and some of the lewd sequences that occur as the script starts to play around with Anderson’s psychic powers. During much of the film, she has captured one of Ma-Ma’s men (Wood Harris, “The Wire”) and he tries to freak her by picturing sexual episodes between them in his head. These scenes can’t exactly be deemed necessary, but they at least prove Anderson’s psychic powers aren’t just about having a convenient way to advance the plot.
Despite opportunities for all the actors to chew the scenery, none do. Headey has learned a thing or two about playing villains from “Game of Thrones” and Ma-Ma is a sickly subtle villain to be sure, while Urban does a better Christian Bale gruff-voiced Batman than Christian Bale does. The movie doesn’t tell you anything about the man behind the helmet, but by the end, you wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two if there’s ever a sequel.
“Dredd” keeps thing incredibly simple, entertaining and gleefully violent. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea — the style of the movie could definitely be considered too niche for mainstream tastes — but regardless of how good you might feel it is, there’s no question that in executed a stupidly simple story so well, “Dredd” makes bad action movies that try to do too much look that much worse. No one will ever label “Dredd” an action classic of the early 2010s, but it will stand the test of time better than anyone expects.
Directed by Pete Travis
Written by Alex Garland (screenplay), John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (comic)
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris