I confess that I am not intimately familiar with John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd comics, nor did I have the privilege of experiencing the so-bad-it’s-good Judge Dredd starring Sly Stallone that came out in 1995. Because of this, I was completely ambivalent about the fact that Judge Dredd was getting a reboot. And yet, even as a member of the heretofore unconverted, I enjoyed Dredd immensely. It defines “smart fun” and has only grown in my estimation since I first saw it.
As we are introduced to the dystopian setting of Mega-City 1, we are shown that the world of the Judges is dank, dark, and pretty much hopeless. Fortunately we follow Judge Dredd, a brutal cop who oozes so much confidence and gruff certainty that we feel safe using him as a guide. In spite of his name, Dredd actually serves as a great foil for what is a depressing, dread-filled vision of the future, nobly doing his duty even in the face of impossible odds. In this way he resembles Batman; and like the Dark Knight, we are very invested in seeing him succeed.
In evaluating the success of the character, you have to hand it to Karl Urban. He’s a very solid actor who seems to revel in working in the world of nerds and nerd culture; from The Lord of the Rings to Chronicles of Riddick, he has put his stamp on some of the most successful franchises of the past decade. I’m impressed that he (or any actor) would be willing to sign on as a protagonist whose face would be almost completely invisible for the entire film. As a result, Urban is forced to convey every expression solely with his mouth, scowling and growling his way around the urban jungle of Mega-City 1 – and it works spectacularly. Every goofy line is delivered straight-faced, and the audience is left grinning the whole time due to his whole-hearted commitment to the role.
Anderson is an earnest “rookie” Judge with a special gift that I shan’t ruin here. Olivia Thirlby’s performance is completely believable, portraying Anderson’s transformation into someone who trusts her instincts and accepts that she is fantastic at her job. Similarly, Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) lends just the right unsettling overtones to the disturbed, drug-addled antagonist Ma-Ma. Headey’s forlorn looks and perpetual frown are a perfect compliment to the character; I will note, however, that despite the great lengths the staff probably went through to make her seem unattractive, even a giant scar across her face wasn’t going to do much to dampen her looks. Fortunately, her absurdly sadistic behavior distracts from this enough that it doesn’t irreparably break the audience’s immersion in the film.
Veteran science fiction screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) is the ultimately key ingredient here. While Karl Urban should be commended for hamming up the delivery, Garland’s smart, simple script leaves little illogicality for the brain to focus on and successfully bridges the gap between fun and grim violence. What could have been an Expendables 2-style stupid-but-fun joke of a movie is elevated above the rest of the pack through clever plot points and realistic character motivations. Even the periodic slow-motion scenes that seem to appear in every modern action movie are explained within the context of the narrative; whether this device is owed to Peter Travis’s direction or Garland’s writing (or both) I don’t know, but it speaks to the thought put into Dredd.
Travis does an admirable job of capturing the action in a clear, concise manner without letting his conceits get in the way of the script. He displays a harsh, blocky, color-clashing world which contrasts significantly against the slick landscape of the new Total Recall. In one interesting stylistic choice, there is a sequence depicting drug use which makes use of the same rapid-fire frame technique as Darren Aronofsky did in Requiem for a Dream. This all works well to capture what I imagine was the original feel of the Dredd series, where comics attempted to approximate what was then the far-off future of the 21st century.
It is worth noting that your enjoyment of Dredd will be contingent upon whether you can stomach both a bullet slowly entering someone’s left cheek and exiting the other and the subsequent deadpan one-liner from Karl Urban. If that appeals to you even a little bit, you’ll love this movie. If you don’t, well… this might not be the film for you.
Dredd is a warm embrace of the original property, near as I can tell. It’s sort of campy, but even that element succeeds as a lighter reprieve in the greater context of Wagner and Ezquerra’s somber world. Though the plot is simplistic, individual elements are high-concept and they work well together to show us what could be a very interesting cinematic universe ripe for exploration in future installments. Garland did in fact state that he has some ideas for a sequel and perhaps a threequel; if the studio asks him to move forward with those plans, we might be in for an unexpectedly Dreddful treat.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on 3D – I didn’t see Dredd in 3D; I was fortunate enough to find a 2D showing so I cannot speak to the quality of the post-conversion. The gore was hard enough to watch with a flat screen, so I imagine 3D may have pushed it over the edge. But again, this is pure supposition – if you love that extra dimension and don’t mind forking over the cash, I’d be happy to hear what you thought.