REVIEW SUMMARY: Covering almost no new cinematic ground, director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland nonetheless concoct a tight, gritty, and resiliently dark picture featuring John Wagner’s and Carlos Ezquerra’s classic character.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: While investigating the deaths of three individuals in the 200-story Peach Trees tower, Judge Joe Dredd and rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson become the prey of drug lord Madeline Madrigal and her army.
PROS: Karl Urban, disappearing beneath the helmet to become Dredd; Olivia Thirlby’s nuanced Anderson; Lena Headey’s menacing turn as Ma-Ma; Alex Garland’s lean, spare script; Pete Travis’s tight direction; exceptional action sequences; good blend of gritty realism and fantastical ultraviolence, even when using slow-motion techniques.
CONS: Worldbuilding of Mega-City One sacrificed for speed and efficiency; unassuming score from Paul Leonard-Morgan; competent yet unnecessary use of 3D; perhaps not newbie-friendly.
Cinema history poses the most significant challenge in making a movie based writer John Wagner’s and Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Joseph Dredd. Forget that anybody who wants to bring him to life must contend with the iconic image of Peter Weller’s chrome-bodied cyborg in Paul Verhoven’s RoboCop; audiences inevitably will compare the vast urban landscapes of Mega-City One, regardless of how well rendered, to Bladerunner’s postmodern Gothic spires and Escape from New York’s decaying infrastructure. When Dredd speaks in the panels of 2000 AD, fans hear Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan growling at yet another lawless punk ready to make his day. Granted, the comic always borrowed heavily from others in crafting Dredd’s adventures; one followed the series for its audacious vision, not for its originality.
So redundancy should work against Dredd, the most recent adaptation of Britain’s most famous one-man wandering judge, jury, and executioner. The establishing shots of Mega-City One’s two-hundred-story neon-flecked block towers amid sprawling slums evoke a hodgepodge of not only Bladerunner but also the Johannesburg of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and the San José of Gareth Edwards’s Monsters. Alex Garland’s screenplay begins in a manner similar to Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day—Dredd (Karl Urban, who practically disappears into the character) is tasked with evaluating rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a psychic who nonetheless has not passed the requisite tests for full Judgship—then morphs suddenly into John McTiernan’s Die Hard when an investigation into the deaths of three up-and coming dealers of the drug Slo-Mo (which slows down the user’s time perception) finds them suddenly locked in the vertical mega-block Peach Trees with a fully armed army under the drug kingpin Madeline Madrigal, known as Ma-Ma (and played with bile-spitting zest by Lena Headey), who has given the order to have Dredd and Anderson killed. Even a warning Dredd gives to Ma-Ma and Peach Trees residents over the block’s speakers recalls the moment in George P. Cosmatos’s Rambo: First Blood Part II where the title character growls a warning over a radio. (Dredd’s final statement before he signs off, “I am the law,” might remind one of another movie starring Sylvester Stallone, Danny Cannon’s abysmal Judge Dredd from 1995…but let us not dwell on the past.)
But the redundancy actually works in Dredd’s favor, allowing Garland and director Pete Travis to concentrate on the movie’s gritty, violent pleasures. Like Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, from the moment Judge Dredd chases a trio of Slo-Mo addicts armed to the teeth with Mac 10s, Dredd operates on pure momentum and inertia, leaving little during its 95-minute running time for traditional worldbuilding or backstory. Judge Dredd provides a brief opening monologue about the founding of Mega-City One, built after some sort of devastation (supposedly nuclear, but never stated explicitly) to house its 800 million inhabitants. Lawlessness is the order of the day; citizens report 17,000 crimes daily, and the only source of order is the Judges. Questions arise: how was Mega-City One built? What is its class structure like? Who is Dredd, and why did he become a Judge? As in its print counterpart, asking such questions misses the point. Wagner and Ezquerra never meant for Judge Dredd to be high art, but the equivalent of a punk rock song. Likewise, Dredd strips away nuance and the lofty ambitions of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and its sequel to focus on its B-movie pleasures: Danny Boyle as remixed by the Ramones. Eschewing an epic scale also means Dredd can showcase its over-the-top nihilism in a way bigger movies cannot. Watering down this ultimately fascist vision of a dog-eat-dog future would have rendered it almost painfully unwatchable. However, such a lean approach also runs the disadvantage of alienating viewers not familiar with the source material. Those who know nothing about Judge Dredd or his long history may find what they see off-putting.
There are other stumbles. Halfway through, Garland, who wrote the compelling novel The Beach and the screenplay for Danny Boyle’s masterful 28 Days Later, opens a plot hole he perhaps knew needed closing. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score thumps bass beats and synthesizers through Travis’s impressive action sequences (even when filmed from the point of view of those using Slo-Mo, in one of the few instances where using slow motion isn’t a distraction), but could have given them even more edge with a harder accompaniment. And while Travis filmed the picture in 3D (and quite well, too), it seems unnecessary. Still, none of these problems hamper Dredd from being a solid entry in the growing body of comic book adaptations. It’s a strong start to what might be a promising series.