The use of lighting and color is one of the oddly artsy flourishes in Dredd.

There are a lot of fans out there who have no doubt been waiting for a proper filmic incarnation of Judge Dredd after the traditionally silly 90’s movie featuring none other than Sylvester Stallone. Though a comic strip character, Judge Dredd has always been an uncompromising reflection of fascist impulses in response to rampant, violent crime. With much in common with other notable violent/vigilante superheroes such as the Punisher or even Batman, the thing that sets Dredd apart is that he lives in a world where his harsh justice is state sanctioned.

Wisely, Dredd keeps thing simple and avoids both Verhoevian satire and Miller (or Nolan) style celebration of everybody’s inner fascist. Dredd is therefore free to be an unrepentant laconic badass and we are free to enjoy it without feeling weird about political or social con/subtext. Dredd is remarkably free of such elements, instead offering a solid and vaguely artistic action movie that is full of personality, black humor, and gruesome violence.I think it was a smart move to set Dredd only a few decades in the future.

Sometime in the near future, America has been blasted apart by war and disaster, leaving a chunk of East Coast urban sprawl relatively untouched. Called Megacity 1 in Judge Dredd canon, the city is overpopulated and rife with violent crime, only 6% of which is answerable by the Ministry of Justice. The backbone of the Ministry is an army of Judges, each one an elite paramilitary operative empowered to try, sentence, and execute judgement on felons.

This movie is a day in the life of Joe Dredd, one of the best of the best, and a man of few words who is possessed with a purity of conviction that is frankly, less than sane. Still, it may be the only response that makes sense in the world he inhabits. Dredd himself is a mystery, more a force of nature than a man. The character exists in a sort of self-contained stasis and it is a credit to the film’s direction and Urban’s inspired (more than a little by Clint Eastwood) performance. Dredd doesn’t have an arc, but it is still fun to watch him mow down thugs bent on killing him and his rookie psychic partner, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). It’s Anderson who gets the arc, going from nervous rookie to hardened badass all in the course of a day with Dredd in one of the most dangerous “blocks” in the city.

The film seems like it wants to flirt with the cost of having an institution like the Judges, but in the end darts away from this.

I think people’s mileage will vary on whether or not it’s acceptable that Dredd is so narratively spare. It takes a few cues from the best action movie of our generation, The Raid, in terms of its setup and simple ambitions. This feels sufficient to me. I’d rather watch this snapshot of the world Dredd lives in than be told some “epic” story of how he has to save it from a penultimate threat. Peach Trees, the block where 90% of the movie takes place, is just another fucked up tenement filled with dangerous drug-addled thugs preying on the innocent and making life difficult for law enforcement. And that’s just fine, that’s a reality that adds to the gritty terrain of Dredd while also negating the need to press too deeply into any kind of commentary or exploration of theme.

Not that I wouldn’t watch that version of Dredd. I’m just saying this doesn’t have to be that to be a good movie.

Lena Headey makes for an interesting feel as a villain, but she’s not given enough to do.

Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) runs Peach Trees which turns out to be the sole manufacturer of this crazy drug. To protect this secret long enough for the shit to get out into the city more, she declares war on Dredd and Anderson. The war runs the length of the block, punctuated by a series of shootouts featuring an endless army of gunthugs and even a squad of crooked Judges. Many of the shootouts feature people all hopped up on said crazy drug.

One of the film’s stylistic conceits, which is overused I think, is based around the drug, called Slo-Mo, which causes the human brain to perceive time at 1% its normal rate. This affords director Pete Travis the opportunity to shoot too many scenes of ultra slow motion featuring more glitter than twenty Edward Cullens on top of splashes of color and light that look torn out of a Beyonce video. I’m not saying these sequences are bad so much as very odd. They don’t really fit the tone of the movie and they are abundant enough to be distracting without ever amounting to much. They are also the only place the movie really does any 3D which, by the way, this is just another waste of the gimmick.

My brother’s loudest criticism of Dredd was that they dropped the ball by not having Dredd trip out on it while killing bad guys at any point. While I didn’t necessarily need to see that, the point is well taken: there’s no real payoff to the Slo-Mo thing so it just feels like what it is, a plot device.

In spite of some overstylization, Dredd is often beautiful to look at.

Likewise, Anderson’s psychic abilities, though well used in a couple of scenes, don’t add much to the movie. It’s a detail and also a plot device in its own right, being the reason that Anderson is allowed this final test before becoming a Judge even though she seems categorically unsuited to the job. That there are mutants out there and a certain level of intolerance for them is an interesting background detail, but it doesn’t go anywhere in Dredd. That interrogation scene is cool though.

I guess what I’m getting at is that Dredd‘s brevity is a double-edged sword. It keeps the focus on the action and the film’s essential momentum, but it also prevents us from having much more to sink our teeth into. This makes Dredd a “ride” but little more. That said, it’s a fun movie and satisfying if you let it be what it is and don’t ask it to be any more. The gallows humor and Dredd’s deadpan laconic one-liners work toward giving the movie a ton of personality which balances out the lack of depth. The action is blue collar but conceits like the Judges’ guns are used well.

Urban was also the right guy for this job so it bears mentioning that Dredd definitely nails the titular character, evoking the principle elements of the character in a way that translates perfectly even to those who know little or nothing about the source material. You get what Dredd is all about, in other words, and that’s not a bad thing if you remember that he was spawned from a knee-jerk reaction to the realities of the drug war and contributory violent crimes.

He isn’t the kind of hero you should appreciate without reservation and neither is his latest movie.

Show us your meme-face, Karl.

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