Dredd is the kind of movie I haven't seen in a long time. It is exceedingly violent, many of it's characters are irredeemable and its title protagonist is a hero by default. This movie would be quite comfortable at the same table as Escape From New York and RoboCop. Dredd is dark and nihilistic, it pulls no punches and earns its R rating and thank god for that. It's nice to see a well executed, gritty action film with some real teeth. While this film isn't for everyone, but those of us disappointed by the Total Recall remake this summer can rejoice. Dredd displays the kind of dystopian future we may not like to live in, but one we definitely want to visit. Dredd gets it right.
Based on the 2000 AD comic, Dredd takes place in a city overtaken by drugs, violence and poverty. The film follows rookie Judge Anderson, on her first assignment with seasoned veteran Judge Dredd. On a routine murder investigation, Dredd and Anderson become trapped in a city block overtaken by a vicious drug lord.
For those who don't know, the world of science fiction features only two possible futures: Utopia (The Fifth Element) and dystopia (Blade Runner). It's true that the dystopian future gets featured more often and it's because we only need look at our modern news stories, and the idea of a future filled with poverty and despair seems timeless and consistent. We may eventually achieve the flying car but there will always be crime and starvation. This is the world Judge Dredd inhabits, a sprawling dystopia built on the ruins of our destroyed former civilization. Mega City One has all of the worst traits a city can have, murder, drug use, poverty and sexual assault, all cranked up to eleven. This is why Mega City One needs fascistic Judge Dredd. With as bad as society has become, our law enforcement have to be more extreme to keep up.
In the opening scene, we watch Dredd execute several people. He shows no hesitation or remorse and what's worse, he offers no comfort to the citizens he claims to protect. Dredd is a machine of justice, he is there to arrest or destroy, not to council. By today's standards he represents everything wrong with our justice system, however, in the context of our story he becomes our hero. When compared to the murderers, rapists and drug dealers he fights, we want him to complete his task because, well, he is the best we have.
Dredd's grim and gritty outlook becomes even more stark when compared to fresh faced rookie Judge Anderson, played wonderfully by Olivia Thirlby. When we first meet her, she has failed every entrance exam the Hall of Justice has thrown at her. However, she possesses psychic powers, something that is no doubt an asset to the justice system. Dredd is to take her out for a single day in the field. If she follows his rules, she passes and retains Judge status.
Let me proceed by saying that there is nothing new here: Grizzled veteran paired with innocent rookie. The two survive hell together etc. However, this film executes this recipe well. It distinguishes itself by bringing the futuristic society into a singular location. The Peach Trees Complex is the microcosm for all of Mega City and this makes for a more intimate story line, with direct and immediate consequences for our two protagonists. They don't have to look for trouble, it finds them. We learn of the different types of people in this futuristic society through encountering all of the people who live in this building. Oddly enough, most of the exposition trouble inherent in futuristic stories is solved by simply advancing the characters forward. We learn that not everyone is poor or a criminal. We also learn that corruption has seeped into every facet of Mega City society.
The cast is wonderful. I had some doubt about Karl Urban, but he delivers. Sometimes less is more and his take on the character is Harry Callahan on his worst day. Grim and gruff to the very last, he never changes and we don't want him to. Olivia Thirlby is great and while mostly plays quiet and nervous, she is given two scenes to really shine and they are brilliant scenes. If her character has a failing, it's on the page. However, to be fair, this is really her introductory story and she is also meant to be the audiences entry into the world. Personally, I thought she was great. Lena Heady as the vicious crime lord Ma Ma, might be the best part of this movie. Heady is a brilliant actress and gives the character a quiet, menacing gravitas. She is horrifying and magnetic. The perfect villain for these two Judges.
The design of this film from it's costume to the location are futuristic enough to give the story a time and place, while being grounded and believable. There is nothing in this movie, save for the psychic powers, that is outlandish and even Anderson's psychic moments are given the proper settup and execution. Strangely, everything seems buyable. Even the "Slo-Mo" sequence, made for 3-D I'm assuming, are beautiful to look at and serve the story.
I can whole heartedly recommend Dredd to those of use who grew up on well crafted R-rated action films like The Terminator. This film is simple but wonderfully made. It delivers exactly what it promised. I hope that Dredd is judged favorably because, if it was done as well, I'd watch a second one.
P.S. io9 has an excellent Judge Dredd Primer for those unfamiliar with the character. Check it out HERE.