Film Review: Dredd
September 27th 2012 · 0 Comments
A popular quote, often hurled by pundits at their political opposition, reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross” (usually attributed to Nobel Prize-winning writer Sinclair Lewis). In new action flick “Dredd,” fascism comes to America wrapped in body armor and carrying a badge. The film is based on one of the most popular characters from the long-running British sci-fi comic book anthology series, “2000 AD.”
Fans of schlock may recall a previous attempt to adapt the character in the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle, “Judge Dredd,” which was a critical disaster (though narrowly profitable). So how does the character fare this time around? With the aid of a fitting sense of humor, appropriately dark production design, and some surprisingly strong performances, “Dredd” makes for a gritty good time.
Most of the world is a radioactive wasteland, and humanity is relegated to subsisting in so-called Mega-Cities. Mega-City One comprises much of the eastern seaboard of the U.S., now walled-in and featuring massive high-rise slums to mitigate overpopulation. Policing the city are the Judges, a small force of heavily-armed paramilitary soldiers who act as judge, jury and executioner for crimes small and large. Dredd (Karl Urban), one of the most infamous and effective Judges, is tasked with evaluating new recruit, Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a powerful psychic. On the way to investigate three vicious murders in the 200-floor Peach Tree tower block, Dredd and Anderson become embroiled in a deadly gang-led drug operation, and must fight their way out against overwhelming odds.
On the surface, there isn’t much here that breaks the mold of your typical cop film. The grizzled veteran is forced by the chief to take a rookie under his wing, they end up stumbling into a highly dangerous situation during what should have been a routine investigation, and they are then forced to bond and fight their way to safety. Fortunately, writer Alex Garland (who also penned the scripts for “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” as well as the novel adapted into “The Beach,” all three directed by Danny Boyle), and Director Pete Travis have no illusions about what kind of film this is. Their lack of pretense is vital in selling such a superficially silly concept; if it took itself seriously, the dialogue would almost certainly come off as shabby and forced.
Dredd works so well on the strength of its central performance. The average moviegoer, even an action flick fanatic, probably couldn’t identify Kiwi actor Karl Urban by name (he’s been a muscular “that guy” in everything from the second and third installments of the Lord of the Rings franchise to the third film in the Bourne espionage series). Urban struts his way through the shadowy hallways of the tower, uttering a quantity of gravelly post-mortem one-liners not witnessed since the heyday of 80s action films; he is equal parts RoboCop and Dirty Harry Callahan. His perpetual scowl (aided by the fact that his other features are obscured by his helmet for the duration; a bold decision if not for the lessons clearly learned from the lame unmasking of Stallone’s Dredd) and uncompromising application of the law make him a caricature, but certainly an entertaining one.
The rest of the main cast is solid as well. Olivia Thirlby is passable as the earnest but less-rigid rookie Judge, and she has a handful of fun butt-kick moments of her own. Lena Headey, perhaps best-known as the conniving Cersei Lannister from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” is terrific as the villainous Ma-Ma. Headey manages with just a sneer what many physically imposing male actors could not; she oozes menace and is clearly enjoying herself.
“Dredd” seems to get most everything else right as well. The production design, while simple, does a good job of selling the setting; it features lots of concrete slabs and plenty of squalor. The gunfights are competently presented, if at times unspectacular, but a handful of stylish slow-motion sequences look terrific. The squeamish should be wary, however––the film earns its R rating with more gore than your average horror film. If you have the stomach for it and can appreciate this uncomplicated throwback to 80s-era action, you might find this one jury worth sitting on.