In Mega-City One, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the law and when he’s put in charge of testing out a psychic rookie judge named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), the two of them investigate a homicide at the 200-story crime-ridden Peach Trees block run by the criminal Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), little realizing they would be getting in over their head when she puts a bounty on the two judges who dare to intrude on her turf.
One can imagine how horribly wrong things might have gone in bringing Great Britain’s anti-hero Judge Dredd back to the screen – one only need look to the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie or any of the Punisher movies to see how a character whose brand of justice bypasses the normal judicial system might work better on the page than when realized as a movie.
Fortunately, the filmmakers behind Dredd 3D really understood the comics and what works about the character, which begins and ends with getting an actor like Karl Urban to deliver just the right amount of scowl and delivering Dredd’s lines in a baritone gravel not unlike a futuristic Dirty Harry (who actually was an influence on the comic character).
From the opening shot establishing the scale of Mega-City One to the first time we see Dredd in action, chasing a car full of criminals on the highway, it’s obvious they were going to nail what worked so well about the early comics written by John Wagner. After seeing Dredd in action, he’s assigned a rookie named Anderson, played by indie darling Olivia Thirlby, a mutant psychic who has to pass Dredd’s training. They’re sent to investigate a triple homicide at a 200-story crime-infested mega-apartment complex involving a drug turf war. The building run by a former prostitute turned crime boss known as Ma-Ma and when they take her henchman Kay (Wood Harris) into custody for questioning, they put her into a position where she has to kll all three of them to make sure Kay doesn’t reveal that she’s manufacturing the city’s Slo-mo supply there.
Due to the setting and the premise, it’s hard not to be reminded of the recent Indonesian action flick The Raid or even last year’s excellent Attack the Block, neither which Dredd holds a candle to in terms of the level of action or humor, but the simple story allows them to focus on the tough and violent world using slick, stylish visuals.
It does feel a bit slower than the typical action movie though, and one of the more interesting filmmaking choices was how they created the effect of using the drug Slo-mo, which is taken by Ma-Ma and her mob, which slows everything down almost to a stand-still. Dredd never pulls its punches in terms of gory violence and the squeamish may be put off by the amount of R-rated blood spray, which is elevated when the violence is combined with the Slo-mo effect and you have faces and bodies exploding in slow motion, which is as beautiful as it is disturbing. There are other impressive action set pieces that don’t use the Slo-mo effect like when Ma-Ma decides to shoot up an entire floor with gatling guns to get at Dredd and Anderson and those tend to be staged different from the typical shoot em up movie.
Dredd has always been a character used for commentary on the justice system and police brutality, though not one might expect to work in a movie. It’s not like he can take his trademark helmet off to go home and watch cartoons with his kids, which is immediately different from normal comic book heroes, who have secret identities and private lives to help create a more rounded character. Dredd is unapologetically one-dimensional – he’s Judge Dredd 24/7 – which is why it’s such a daring turn by Urban, whose face we barely see other than his scowling grimace. It’s also interesting to see the movie released opposite a new Clint Eastwood movie because it drives home how hard it is to make a character like this work for an entire movie.
Fortunately, Dredd doesn’t get all the fun in terms of taking down perps, and Thirlby’s Anderson proves to be just as strong a character due in how she contrasts with Dredd, actually having emotion and empathy as she uses her psychic powers to interrogate perps. That’s not to say she doesn’t deliver when it comes to action and by the end, viewers will be rooting for her just as much as for Dredd. Similarly, Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma is also a very different villain from what we normally see in action movies, not just because she’s a woman, but also because there’s more to her reasons for killing those who cross her.
Not to take anything away from the actors or director Pete Travis, but one can’t overlook what Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel and composer Paul Leonard-Morgan bring to the table, as the look of the film and the driving score really sets Dredd apart from other modern action movies. Some ideas don’t work though, like cutting back to the building’s security cameras, which often takes away from the stylish impact of the rest of the movie.
Dredd 3D is as grim and gritty and violent as other action movies we’ve seen, but when it breaks away from normal action movie conventions is when it gets interesting as the filmmakers find a stylish way of showing violence. It may not be the fastest-moving action movie you’ll see, but it remains true to the comics thanks to Karl Urban’s spot-on portrayal of Dredd.