Movie Review | Dredd
Movie summary: In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO. (IMDb)
It's not often that I'll praise an action film where a fascist white cop is the hero of the piece, without ever stopping being a fascist. In fact, it'll probably never happen again unless another Dredd film is made, or the Mega City One TV show eventually gets made.
To be fair, that central conflict of the ultimate fascist gunning down everyone who steps out of line has been pretty much central to the character of Judge Dredd since his inception. Hell, the only reason he's the hero is because Dredd is usually up against people who are even worse.
And Lena Headey's Ma-Ma is undoubtedly worse here, even though she claims Dredd is worse than her after the Judge has slaughtered his way through her men. I don't know how Headey is always so good as a villain, but she's easily a match for any men who have regularly played antagonists on film or TV.
Ma-Ma might not be as scheming or manipulative as Game of Throne's Cersei Lannister, but I'd say she's a lot more vicious and far more personally violent. And she still had the willpower to forge her own clan and take over the mega-block the massive majority of the movie takes place in.
That last fact has brought comparisons with The Raid, and the idea that Dredd is just ripping it off. However, Dredd was actually written and entered production first, but The Raid beat it to the big screen. I have to say, I do prefer Dredd thanks to how razor-sharp and enjoyable brief the action sequences are.
Dredd contains a lot of violence, but it usually comes in short bursts that never outstay their welcome - impressive when taking into account how slow-motion is used to mimic the effects of the fictional drug, SLO-MO, and allowing us to see how everything unfolds from the users' perspectives.
The action also sets up a nice conflict between right and wrong, as the people trying to kill the Judges for most of the film are either flat-out criminals or desperate enough to survive that they are willing to turn to murder - but Dredd especially is a far more lethal and efficient killer than they could ever hope to be.
Even the antagonists realise this after Dredd burns an entire group to death with a single incendiary round from his gun, asking how they're supposed to stop him all while watching comrades in flames on-screen. It's pretty clear they've never encountered anyone like him before.
Despite this extreme brutality, Dredd never loses the audience's support, as he is trying to take down a gang of murderous drug dealers while simply trying to stay alive as dozens of people try to kill him. Even in the face of his superiority at dealing out death, he remains the underdog going up against vastly superior numbers.
It does also help that, aside from a couple of moments, Dredd is never cruel. Lethally brutal, yes, but not cruel. He clearly isn't taking any pleasure from what he's doing it, and simply wants to perform his duties and take down the gang.
In contrast, they respond with threats of extended violence, torture and - directed at Dredd's trainee colleague, Anderson - rape. There's a very clear psychological delineation between the two sides which is the only thing that really separates Dredd from the criminals.
Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, is different to all of them, having gained psychic powers from growing up near the wall that is all that protects the citizens of Mega City One from the Cursed Earth outside.
She's a hopeful idealist, having gained the power of trying out to become a Judge after spending her youth in squalor, and clearly empathises with many of the more desperate opponents they face, fully aware that most of them don't feel that they have any other choice but to hunt the Judges.
It's also interesting to see how both Anderson and Dredd have affected each by the time the movie ends, albeit in completely different ways. They make a great pairing too, with the near-emotionless personification of the law that is Dredd butting up against the far more open and kind-hearted Anderson on a more frequent basis as the action unfolds.
And speaking of Dredd, wow is Karl Urban amazing here. Unlike the Stallone movie, we never see any more of Urban's face than the bottom half, perpetually snarling in a perfect representation of the original comic book character.
It was also a pleasant surprise to re-discover just how funny the movie can be, Dredd in particular as the most brilliant straight-man ever. Some of his comments and reactions to what he goes through are delivered perfectly and are deliberately understated for maximum laughs.
Where other big-screen comic-book characters might throw out a one-liner, or maybe start snarking at their enemies, Dredd's laconic responses are a breath of fresh air. It's often just Urban's delivery of obvious facts perfectly portraying the Judge's disbelief that he even has to say it that draws a smile.
The only real let-downs for me are the often-poor visual quality of the movie, making some of the darker-lit scenes look absolutely terrible, and an entirely unmemorable score. The music is functional at best, serving as a decent accompaniment to the action and little more.
Dredd is a great action film with a dark streak of humour and an even darker streak of extremely bloody violence. Couple that with a morally-questionable protagonist whose face we never see in full and it's a wonder that this film is as good as it is.