Directed By: Pete Travis
Written By: Alex Garland
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
Everyone would love to have the chance for a do over. The opportunity to go back and right a wrong that has scarred you in an extreme manner is a dream many of us have. With a Hollywood culture full of remakes you would think we would see more films that attempt to redo failed endeavors at franchises. In 1995 we were given the very much dismissed Judge Dredd that failed to do much of anything. The success of that film was limited at best and left many fans of the Dredd franchise dishearten that their character did not get a proper adaption. Now seventeen years later director Pete Travis is attempting to reboot the franchise for a new generation. His attempt is a very successful one that completely sheds the stigma of the past failings. It is odd that a remake can feel refreshing but it does with change of pass action sequences and an aggressive assault of style.
Those worried about getting yet another origin story should fear not because we are thrown neck deep into this world right from the start. Dredd takes place in a violent future where much of the world has been consumed by a city landscape. Crime is common place and unavoidable. Thousands of crimes happen each day and the police are only able to respond to less than ten percent of those crimes. The police force is made up of Judges who are given the power to be judge, jury, and executioner. Judge Dredd is one Judge who devotes his life to the order of the law. This time around Dredd is played by Karl Urban who lets you know right away he gets the character. His performance is part Clint Eastwood and part Terminator with a little bit of his own flair thrown in for effect. To his credit Urban was willing to take a role that requires him to wear a helmet for the films entirety. Urban doesn’t allow that helmet to become a barrier for the audience. It develops into a part of his character far beyond simple costume design. I really hope this opens more action movie doors for Urban because he has shown he is very capable.
What’s interesting about this film is how Dredd is never placed in a position of omnipotent stature. What sets Dredd apart is the unimpassioned way he gives out his justice. He is simply by the book and detached from any emotion. Due to the matter of fact way he lays out his justice he is given an assignment to judge the aptitude of a new rookie recruit. Her name is Anderson and she hasn’t show the skills needed to be a Judge. She has failed much of her testing up to this point, and based on Dredd’s initial evaluation she doesn’t make the cut. However, she is given another shot due to her unique ability. Anderson is a mutant with a psychic gift far stronger than anything of recent memory. Olivia Thirlby plays Anderson in what should be a thankless role. Right from her introduction the character reeked of being a plot convenience, but she actually worked well in the framework of the story. Anderson was the perfect ying to Dredd’s yang as the one person who looked beyond straightforward justice to find a reason why.
Their first assignment is a basic one. They are merely investigating the death of three people at a local highrise. When they discover the culprit things hit a bit of a snag when the crimelord known as Ma-Ma refuses to allow the judges to take him in. He has vital information that needs protecting so Ma-Ma takes control of the building and unleashes the entire structure of miscreants upon Dredd and Anderson. With the highrise sealed shut the Judges have no choice but to fight their way out. In a land full of drug lords and criminals Ma-Ma is one of the most feared. Lena Headey plays this vixen of violence, and unfortunately her performance was perhaps the weakest link in an otherwise stellar film. I was never able to buy her as this sadistic maniac who could easily take control of everyone around her. Luckily her character is not all that important so it did not take that much away from the overall enjoyment of the film. Those who watched The Raid: Redemption earlier this year will find this plot eerily similar. The video game staging of a police force making their way through a building sounds like a recipe or repetition, but Dredd avoids that issue with extreme prejudice
One of the best aspects of Dredd is how quickly the pace moves. It has the right amount of lulls to allow the action to have more of an impact, and it changes up the set pieces enough so you never feel bored. It also has some of the best use of slow-motion since The Matrix. The drug of the day is the apply named ‘Slo Mo’ that causes the brain to slow everything down to 1% its normal speed. Director Pete Travis uses that plot piece to create some breathtaking moments of beauty and brutality. Watching a group of gang members being blown away in slow-motion by Dredds onslaught of bullets was poetry in motion. The ‘Slow Mo’ sequences easily could have been overused to the point of ad nauseum, but they were reserved for special moments. Dredd brought a style of action we really don’t see that much anymore. It had pure unadulterated violence that earns the ‘R’ rating, but never felt exploitative. The fact that the plot was simplistic wasn’t an issue because it had the more important elements of tension and character.
This summer has been full of action and comic book movies that have a scope outside normal comprehension. Each tends to have conflict that involves the safety of an entire city or even the entire world. With that conflict frequently comes great enjoyment, nevertheless there are times when it feels reinvigorating when a movie breaks things down to the basics. Dredd isn’t saving the world here or even attempting to save a simple building. We are purely infested in his life and his partners. Even with the limited stakes I became engrossed in the action. What made Dredd successful was the fact it was willing to except what it is and just go a little further than we would anticipate. Dredd had the luxury of being a reboot with no expectations. It wasn’t tied down with people demanding it be faithful to the first film. Instead it was propelled by cries to do something completely different. It heard those cries and created a movie that is one of the best surprises of the year thus far.