In 1995, Sylvester Stallone starred in Judge Dredd as the titular law enforcer. This big budget sci-fi action flick was goofy and violent and had the added punishment of Rob Schneider as pained comic relief. No wonder it failed at the box-office. I was never a fan of the comics so I can’t say how close the movie was to the source material, but given the presence of Rob Schneider, I’d say it’s doubtful. Because the 1995 film was such a flop, nobody wanted the rights to the character when they went back up for sale. That’s what allowed screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) to swoop in and write a new version. Dredd is an attempt to resuscitate a franchise that never got started. I don’t know if it’s particularly a good Judge Dredd movie, but as an action film it’s viciously entertaining and it has 100 percent less Rob Schneider.
Dredd (Karl Urban) works for the police of Mega City 1, one of the last metropolises of the irradiated waste land that is the United States. Crime has taken over and crime lords rule neighborhoods. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) is the leader of a gang pushing Slo-Mo, wa drug that alters people’s perception of time. She controls the 20-story high rise that serves as her base of operations. Dredd is partnered with a young cadet, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who also has psychic abilities. She could be an asset to the force, but first she needs to be field tested. They get called to arrest Ma-Ma, but this prostitute-turned-ruthless drug kingpin isn’t going quietly. She locks Dredd and Anderson inside her high rise and orders her inhabitants to take care of the pesky officers.
I had my doubts, but when it comes to action Dredd delivers. As soon as I saw the trailer, I screamed that this film was little more than a Hollywood remake of the awesome action film from Indonesia, The Raid: Redemption. The plots are identical but I’ll give Garland the benefit of the doubt that he came to his story independently. Whereas The Raid was heavy on martial arts and different fighting styles, and creative weapons, Dredd is really all about the firepower, the gunplay, the blowing up of material, the riddling of bodies with bullets. Each floor presents a new challenge and gives another opportunity for Dredd to outgun or outsmart the competition. This plot model feels like a video game come to life, clearing stage after stage, awaiting boss battles, collecting power ups. Readers will know I am not a strong believer that video games will ever give birth to a solid movie, but I’m ready to concede that this specific plot structure can allow for kickass action. The plot is simple but when given enough attention to geography and organic consequences, then great action can be unleashed, and Dredd is great action unleashed. It looks great, it’s constantly offering something new, raising the stakes, bringing in new elements to contend with, and it’s more than just things going boom. There are some genuinely suspenseful sequences to go along with all the stylish shoot-em-ups.
And the gunplay is vicious and bloody, reveling in the gory display of bodies being blown apart. There are slow-mo bullets traveling through people’s faces, all the better to see the care CGI artists put in to the gore. The ruthless violence is practically casual, and we’ll just see character walk by and fire into the backs of downed characters, giving us another explosion of blood to marvel upon. It would be really easy to call this movie sick, except it works so effectively as an action thriller that the bloody violence feels like a constant jolt. Our introduction to Ma-Ma is her hurling three men off the roof of her 2000-foot high penthouse, watching them splatter below. These are some nasty people and Dredd is dispelling some nasty justice, but because we recognize the antagonists are ruthless, and a real threat, then the violent dispatching of them doesn’t feel exploitative. It feels like keeping pace with some bad folk. Maybe that’s just a contrived way for me to justify that I found the brutish violence entertaining. Simple pleasures.
As far as a Judge Dredd adaptation, the Dredd elements almost feel grafted on, inconsequential. The screenplay could have been completely wiped of the Dredd elements and the plot would essentially be the same. It’s a dystopian world where crime has run amok and the police have resorted to become ruthless enforcers of justice. Dredd as a character, his worldview, his rookie partner who needs to prove herself on the mean streets, all of this is boilerplate cop movie stuff. It has some sci-fi stylizing but the content is still the same. I enjoyed the advanced gun that follows voice commands but nothing in the plot hinged on this element. Dredd just as easily could have been Cop #1 running from room to room, floor to floor, taking out the bad guys. So in this regard, Dredd works really well as a confined action movie but it’s questionable whether this is an effective adaptation of the comics.
I’m surprised that with a drug called Slo-Mo that the movie didn’t make more use of this plot device. We get sequences of people blissfully on the Slo-Mo; the world looking like it was filmed through a glistening soap bubble. It’s neat but it can really become something cool for the sake of cool, ultimately superfluous except for a snazzy visual that plays into the 3D. It doesn’t appear like the drug lasts long either. But if time slows down for the people on this drug then wouldn’t you think somebody would want to make use of this when fighting Dredd? Perhaps it would sharpen their reaction time by making the world seem to slow to a crawl. However, if this is just an altered state of the drug, I think there could have been a fun moment where a Slo-Mo user tried to take on Dredd and we get differing points of view. For the user, time seems slow and they seem at an advantage. For Dredd, the user would just be acting slow and stupid. It’d punctuate the illusion of the reality-altering drug and explain why none of these gang members spark up before battle.
The acting in Dredd is competent and hardly dreadful (forgive me, it had to be done). Urban (Star Trek) goes the entire movie with his helmet screwed on. You never see the top half of the man’s face, presenting an interesting acting challenge (just ask Tom Hardy how tricky it is to act with your face obscured). The man has a permanent grimace carved into his face, grumbling his line throughout. Dredd is supposed to be a grim, no-nonsense enforcer. He’s not exactly got a lot of dimension to him. Urban inhabits the role well but you get the impression anybody could have been in that suit and the film would roughly be the same. Dredd also answers the question of what Olivia Thirlby (Juno) has been up to since 2008. She acquits herself well in all the bloody business and she’s not a bad blonde either. Headey has got the sneering villain act down cold thanks to TV’s Game of Thrones.
Dredd is your best bet when it comes to action movies right now. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. The action is brutish and routinely entertaining. It pulls no punches and the bloody melee is full of beautiful carnage. It’s a simple story with pretty simple characters and relatively shallow depth, but where Dredd succeeds is in execution. The emphasis is spent on constructing thrilling actions sequences that build, that change, that impress. It’s not for the faint of heart but for those hungry for a hard-R, bloody, sci-fi thriller, the likes of Paul Verhouven, then I suggest checking out Dredd. And you better hurry, because this version of Judge Dredd is also failing at the box office. Maybe Rob Schneider has been vindicated after all.
Nate’s Grade: B