Let’s clear the air: Dredd is so unlike Sylvester Stallone’s execrable Judge Dredd that, were it not for the title character and the iconic helmet worn by both Stallone and Karl Urban, the two wouldn’t appear to share the same source material. Dredd, though not half as smart as the 2000 A.D. comics that inspired it, has a bleak, is an uncommonly inspired shoot-em-up. Its first shot, with the towering buildings of Mega City One casting grim shadows over the ruined earth the city is build upon, evoke a daytime Blade Runner. Its last borrows liberally from The Dark Knight. The plot, which sees Dredd and a rookie judge navigate their way through a locked-down apartment complex filled with men willing to die in protecting the leader of their drug cartel, happens to resemble that of The Raid: Redemption. But merely comparing Dredd to other action movies won’t do. It’s a smarter, nastier film than many of its contemporaries, and, at its best, gives rise to moments of raw terror and startling beauty, the two often going hand-in-hand.
Dredd begins by surveying the oppressive expanse of Mega City One, giving a curt assessment of the cursed remainder of America that stretches from Boston to Washington D.C. The only thing standing between the city and self-imposed extinction are the judges, who enforce a rather draconian set of laws from the monolithic Hall of Justice. The Judges can only respond to six percent of crime in the city, so it’s a particularly unlucky day for the criminal that runs across one. Here’s how quickly things can spiral out of control for a Judge in Mega City One: Dredd ends up storming the Peach Trees apartment complex with a rookie Judge because he recognizes the burns on the mouth of a mutilated corpse as belonging to the paraphernalia found on a trio of reckless drivers taken down on a prior bust. The drug is called Slo-Mo, and it’s a tricked out super-crank that allows its users to experience life in grungy, slightly candy colored variant of bullet time. Obviously, the dudes who were skinned alive and tossed from a balcony while under the influence didn’t enjoy their trip.
The dynamics between Dredd’s old, hardened cop and Anderson’s naive rookie, the threat of a new drug going viral, a ruthless crime lord eyeing aggressive expansion onto new turf—none of Dredd‘s elements are particularly fresh, but the fact that the film is willing to hit the beats of these tropes without relying on too many gimmicks beyond the lurid, graphic details of its violence sets it apart from a generation of action movies that’ve mined and processed the better parts of exploitation movies to the point that original material has largely been rendered unpalatable. Shot on practical sets, using 3D cameras, and cutting back on CGI excess, Dredd‘s a relatively cheap film—hence the use of asthma inhalers and caulk guns as key props—that looks expensive, as opposed to the other way around. Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd is the genre’s first genuine synthesis of Eastwood grit and Bronson nihilism, a balance that’s only previously been struck when one of those icons walked onto the turf of the other. The film sometimes violates its internal logic and, once it settles into Peach Trees, is only able to match the uniquely American horrors of the opening act in brief flashes, but there are pleasures to be found in standard, apolitical action movies, and Dredd finds those, too.
Dredd‘s strength lies in how screenwriter Alex Garland pares down the galaxy-trotting Dredd mythos while suggesting the larger world beyond the blast shields of Peach Trees. While movies like Total Recall and The Matrix suggest that it is possible to create great, world-hopping science fiction on film, the closed world presented here forces the viewer to confront the reality of its titular character. Though Anderson is given more than her fair share of the script’s weaker moments, she serves as an able means of accessing Dredd—because identifying with him directly is impossible for all but the most detached—and as a strong, capable hero in her own right. That’s the best trick Dredd pulls: providing one hero with which one sympathises, and another that acts as a brutal extrapolation of America’s extremist overcorrection for violent tragedy. Anderson pushes forward while Dredd causes one to recoil in horror. Bodies liter the food court and there’s blood in the wishing fountain, but fret not; the mall will re-open in one hour.
Dredd. With Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Cassandra Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma), Wood Harris (Kay), Domhnall Gleeson (clan techie), and Warrick Grier (Caleb). Directed by Pete Travis and produced by Alex Garland, Andred MacDonald, and Alion Reich. Screenplay by Garland, based upon the 2000 A.D. comic book Judge Dredd, created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.