After seeing Dredd, I’m tempted to take back every negative thing I’ve said about the month of September. Yeah, I’ve spent the last few weeks subjecting myself to terrible movies, but then along comes this little gem, a gem that gives me the same giddy excitement I felt when I saw the original Robocop as a kid. Dredd is an unpretentious, super-violent, super-fun, blood-and-guts thrill ride. Oh, and it’s also the best comic book movie of the year.
This time around Karl Urban dons the oversized motorcycle helmet sported by Sylvester Stallone in the 1995 guilty pleasure Judge Dredd. Fortunately, Urban takes the role in a completely different direction. Not once in the film does he remove the iconic motorcycle helmet, and far from hamming it up as Stallone did, Urban provides the human justice dispenser with a fixed frown and a Clint Eastwood-esque rasp. The approach is perfectly suited for the grim, borderline nihilistic material on display here.
In a post-apocalyptic future in which the surviving population of the former United States lives in walled off mega cities, civilization is governed by a group of enforcers—known as Judges—who carry uninhibited powers to arrest, sentence, and execute lawbreakers. This suitably gritty reboot is mostly confined to one lawless city block in that walled off mega city. Partnered with a rookie judge (Olivia Thirlby), Dredd heads to a 200 story housing project to investigate the murders of three junkies. After quickly apprehending one of the murderers, the duo find the entire block has been sealed off under the orders of the ruthless drug lord known as Ma-Ma (a terrifically creepy Lena Headey). She orders everyone in the block to kill the two judges, leaving the two lawgivers to battle their way through hundreds of stories of junkies and thugs in order to survive.
The most interesting thing about Dredd is that the movie is really more about Olivia Thirlby’s development as a person. Urban does a terrific job as Judge Dredd, but Dredd has always been something of a static, one dimensional protagonist; he never removes his helmet, he’s completely dedicated to his job, he never doubts his purpose in life, and he’s absolutely incorruptible. In the end, Dredd is still awesome, but he’s a faceless weapon of the State.
Judge Anderson as played by Olivia Thirlby comes in to do the heavy dramatic lifting as her character finds herself changed by each violent encounter with the denizens of Ma-Ma’s hellhole. She’s the rookie, she’s the only judge in the movie who doesn’t wear a helmet, and she’s also gifted with psychic powers that allow her to peer into the minds she’s inflicting punishment upon. Her powers and weaknesses allow her to be conflicted, and they allow her to develop along with the progression of the plot.
By being reduced to something of a supporting player, Urban’s Judge Dredd is freed up to be the fascist disciplinarian of few words that fans of the comics have always known and loved. Dredd has only two modes in the movie: pissed off and more pissed off. Both modes are fucking awesome.
When Judge Dredd gets pissed off, that means bad guys are going to die and die they do. Throughout the course of the film, Dredd shoots multiple criminals in the face, throws several people to their deaths, sets multiple bad guys on fucking fire, and even executes a few scumbags with nothing more than his bare hands. Blood spills in every other frame of the movie. The violence explodes with such energy and in such creative ways that I was instantly reminded of Paul Verhoeven’s fantastic Robocop. Even though the entire movie is little more than one action set piece, the action never gets dull—as it occasionally did with the much lauded The Raid: Redemption—because Dredd never ceases to find new ways to make criminals good and dead. Instead of descending into unbearably grim territory, however, director Pete Travis manages to keep things somewhat light by adopting a tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach to the presentation of the proceedings.
But a fantastic good guy is nothing without an equally threatening bad guy. Fortunately, this movie gets that right to by having Lena Heady play the role of the villainous role of Ma-Ma. Juxtaposed against the stoic Dredd, I think most actors would feel tempted to chew the scenery (much as Armand Assante did in original Judge Dredd), but Headey takes a different approach. Decked out with a mouth full of meth teeth, she underplays the role as a quiet, drugged-out sociopath. She manages to ooze sleaze and menace with nothing more than an unflinching glare or a well placed sneer, and with this role she solidifies her place as one of the best female character actors in Hollywood.
In fact, she plays the role more subdued than even Urban does, highlighting the similarities between the characters. Both characters, however, silently revel in inflicting torture on others. The only significant difference between Ma-Ma and Dredd is that Dredd unerringly adheres to the law whereas Ma-Ma remains content to create and enforce her own law.
Dredd still lacks the dry, British humor of the original comic strip, but this film is a fun, violent, refreshingly straightforward action movie with a fantastic lead and a fantastic villain. After the watered-down (but still enjoyable) Lockout and the soulless remake of Total Recall earlier this year, I wondered if the exuberance of ‘80s action movies had been expunged from Hollywood. I don’t have to worry about that for this week at least, because we now have Dredd in theaters.
I implore any action junkie reading this review to go see Dredd right now. Seriously, if you love real action movies, make sure to support these guys. This newer, more violent Judge Dredd is fantastic, and I want to see more of him in future installments.