Dredd (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)

September 18, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dredd Poster

Originally, Dredd, the second motion picture incarnation of the British comic book hero, was due for a mid-August U.S. release. Distributor Lionsgate, buoyed by a positive reactions at advance screenings, decided to move the film out of the "dumping ground" wasteland of late summer and into the earliest days of autumn. Despite obvious (but mostly superficial) similarities to The Raid: Redemption, Dredd can claim to be sufficiently different to avoid being labeled a rip-off. It's also much closer to the comic book than the Hollywood-ized 1995 version that starred Sylvester Stallone in the title role.

This time around, Judge Dredd is played by Karl Urban, although you'd never know it was Doctor Leonard McCoy under the mask if not for the credits. As in the comics, Dredd never removes his mask, so the most we see of Urban are his lips and stubbled chin. Also, he speaks in a throaty growl that sounds a lot like Christian Bale's Batman. Dredd is less a character than an icon. He shows no emotion and, although he utters the occasional one-liner, he's as straightforward as they come. Think Robocop.

As in The Raid: Redemption, this is about an attempt by law enforcement officers to infiltrate a high rise building that has been co-opted by gangsters, fight their way to the top, and take out the chief bad guys. The Raid: Redemption is more bloody and visceral, but Dredd offers its own pleasures, chief of which is a scene of mayhem in which the villain, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), takes out an entire floor of the complex in a futile attempt to kill two judges. It's pretty spectacular stuff. And, once Dredd runs out of ammo, the level of tension escalates remarkably.

Dredd has an associate, rookie judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mop-haired blond who eschews headgear. She is being assessed for a pass/fail grade by Dredd. Her test scores were judged "marginal," but she has been accorded an opportunity in the field because of her impressive psychic abilities. She's unprepared for Dredd's brutality, but adapts quickly. She also plays mind games with a prisoner they take during their initial raid of the Peach Tree high rise. Kay (Wood Harris) knows something about Ma-Ma that she doesn't want him to tell anyone, and Anderson goes mucking around in his mind out to find out what it is. It turns out that Peach Tree is ground zero for the manufacture and distribution of a new drug, Slo-Mo (makes the brain think time is moving at 1% of actual speed), and there's nothing Ma-Ma won't do to protect that secret. Trapping two judges in the building and hunting them down is child's play. Or so she thinks.

The action scenes are graphic and well choreographed with a slightly artistic edge. Visually, Dredd is impressive, with the digital rendering of Mega-City One offering the most satisfying helping of visual candy. Dredd was filmed in 3-D, but there are problems. Most of these occur during special effects-laden scenes that attempt to represent reality through a Slo-Mo filter. The 3-D comes across as artificial and overdone in these sequences. There is also noticeable blur during a few of the action scenes. Director Pete Travis does, however, solve the problem of things being too dark. Dredd has just about the right level of lighting.

If there's a serious disappointment, it's the villain. Ma-Ma, despite being played with over-the-top zest by Lena Headey, isn't a very impressive foil for the mighty Judge Dredd, even when she calls for "back-up." Heady is so inconsequential that the final confrontation seems more like an afterthought than an important moment in the story. It's a little like Superman confronting Lex Luthor, except in this case Lex doesn't have any Kryptonite on hand.

Unlike many post-apocalyptic scenarios, the one presented in Dredd offers sufficient glimpses of a dystopian future without overselling the dark, ugly miseries of this future. The background is strong enough to make some of the movie's more outlandish elements seem credible and to represent the dour Judge Dredd as a paragon of justice. There's also a fair amount of dark humor, often of the gallows variety, that never seems out-of-place. Not much of what Dredd has to offer is new or groundbreaking, but the fusion of familiar elements generates a smartly-paced, suspenseful 90 minutes that's a vast improvement over the 1995 film, although not quite on par with The Raid: Redemption when it comes to pure, unexpurgated action.

Dredd (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2012-09-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1