Judge Dredd first appeared in 1977, not entering in any polite manner, but kicking down the doors and blowing away any of the clean-cut competition that dared raise a fuss. He first appeared in the British sci-fi anthology comic, 2000 A.D., inventing a whole new future aesthetic. Gone were the halcyon dreams of a brighter tomorrow. The future was here and it was a nightmare. Rampant pollution, rampant crime, a city full of the disenfranchised struggling to get by. This was a world in which megacities were so overpopulated that people seemed to be literally spilling out of the buildings. And the heroes were not even heroes, but a fascist police force who dispensed violent justice for even minor offenses – a Charles Bronson wet dream. Arriving on the scene during the apex of the London Punk era and on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, the audience were often the forebears of the very dregs contained in the comic. And they got the joke. Dredd the crypto-fascist was a new, violent hero for a new, violent time and although he espoused some very harsh values, he stood for something and it was paradoxically a double-fingered salute to the conservative powers that be.
DREDD is the second official screen adaptation of the classic comic character. The first was the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film, directed by Danny Cannon. Many people loathe that film (including Stallone, reportedly) and some enjoy it, if for perhaps the wrong reasons. One thing we can all agree on is that the film was not Judge Dredd. But what is? How do you create an accessible action film where the lead character is a fascist fighting a losing war against the most base elements of vice and corruption?
This film seems to know that they need to put the Stallone out of the audience’s mind from the outset. Like that film, it opens with a naration, but one which clearly sets it’s world apart from the glossier neon-futura of the 1995 film. Almost immediately, we are introduced to Judge Dredd (Karl Urban – STAR TREK, PRIEST) – a no-nonsense law enforcement officer who methodically dispenses sentences on lawbreakers.
The entire film takes place across one 24 hour period. Dredd has been assigned to give the rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thrilby – BEING FLYNN, THE DARKEST HOUR) her final field assessment. Despite failing grades, Anderson has been allowed to advance thanks to her extraordinary psychic abilities. She is a mutant (non-deformed, natch), but a she’s a valuable mutant and that’s all the Chief Judge cares about.
Unfortunately, Dredd and Anderson decide to investigate a gangland killing at the Peachtree Apartments, a 200 story building controlled by scarred prostitute-turned-murderous crime lord, Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Heady – 300, GAME OF THRONES). Ma-Ma has been cornering the market on a new drug called Slo-Mo. When the Judges make a bust that gives them access to one of her top enforcers, Ma-Ma realizes she can’t let them escape the building. She has the entire structure locked down and sends all of her people after the Judges who then must try to find a way out.
The plot may sound familiar to anyone who has checked out THE RAID: REDEMPTION. Naturally, DREDD is bigger with less emphasis on martial arts and familial issues. And blasphemous as it may be to some, I found DREDD to be the more enjoyable of the two films. It has a fun pacing and is wise enough to give enough character depth without betraying the source material. By structuring the film around Anderson’s trial by fire, DREDD eliminates all comparisons with the Stallone film. We are introduced to the harsh realities of this world as she is in a constant series of hurdles the heroes must overcome in order to survive.
The cast equates themselves well. The most pressure is on Urban, who seems to get the character without taking himself too seriously. The comic character is characterized by a sneer that is always present and a complete lack of humor. Urban replicates both of these without slipping into parody, creating a decent representation of the character that is endearing. And thank God, the helmet never comes off.
With Dredd such a brick wall, much of the emotion in the story has to be handled by Judge Anderson. In this, Olivia Thrilby does a great job. She is a young, mismatched yet very capable action heroine and I would personally like to see Thrilby get more parts like this. Heady is a surprisingly effective villain, conveying someone who has been through hell and has survived by being more demented and cold-blooded than the people who put her there.
Though it’s important to stay true to the characters, DREDD does not try to anal retentively replicate the atmosphere of the comic. Rather, it seems to know that it’s best bet is to try to balance the atmosphere of the comic with creating a pure, entertaining action film. On those merits, it does a passable job of the former and a great job of the latter. The film retains some of the satirical black humor one would hope to find for the first half hour or so. But it quickly forgoes this in favor of pure balls-to-the-wall action. Rather than try to balance the two elements throughout the film, it ditches the satire in order to keep things moving. For the remainder of the film, any chuckles come from the crazy level of violence. Also softened quite a bit are any overt references to the fascist rule of the judges. It wisely never thinks to question the morality of the judges, since the film is told through the eyes of two people accustomed to this way of life. However, it also seems to be shying away from the issue a bit, and is perhaps a bit too cautious in this regard.
All of this would be a bigger sticking point if the resulting action film wasn’t so darn entertaining. It does indulge in the occasional modern cliche. Though the Slo-Mo drug is an integral part of the plot, it also allows for some Zack Snyder-like effects that got a bit annoying at times. Otherwise, the film is loads of fun, one of the better theatrically released action film of late. People complaining about the sameness present in many recent action films are really missing out by passing this one by.
Face it, the perfect Judge Dredd film was made way back in 1987. It was called ROBOCOP. What we have here is something that honors the tradition of Dredd while creating an entertaining popcorn flick. And honestly, that’s not so bad either. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content