With most of the Earth now an irradiated wasteland, millions of survivors are crammed into densely over-populated Mega Cities. As crime is uncontrollable, an elite force of judges have been tasked with acting as judge, jury and instant executioner. The most feared of them all, Judge Dredd (Urban), is assigned to assess psychic rookie Anderson (Thirlby) for the day, while they investigate a triple homicide in a 200-story Mega Block controlled by vicious drug lord Ma-Ma (Headey). When they learn that the murders are linked to a new designer drug, Ma-Ma puts the building into lock-down and orders their execution…
Given how indefensibly bad Danny Cannon and Sly Stallone’s 1995 Judge Dredd was, all anyone had to do to provide a better version was to turn up. Admirably going a few steps further, though, Dredd does more than just turn up. Literally blowing the memory of Stallone’s rightly-maligned clanger-vehicle away, director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland understand the exact level on which the movie needs to work, getting the tone, look and approach just right.
Okay, so given the plot, setting and set-up, it’s notably comparable to The Raid. But while many critics have claimed that the success of Gareth Evans’ exhilarating (yet overrated) Indonesian actioner casts too long a shadow here, Dredd deserves to be a success and – ahem – judged on its own merit. Consistently brutal and full of inventive ultra-violence, wind-pipes are caved in, flesh is skinned and heads are burnt from within. To their credit, Travis and Garland occasionally pause to consider the moral implications of such a system (Anderson meets a woman whom she’s just made a widow), but the primary aim here is suspenseful ass-kicking.
Despite a comparatively small budget (for a comic adaptation), we also get a thoroughly convincing rendering of Mega-City One, despite the fact that most of the movie is set inside a 200-story slum building. Of course, this was obviously a result of said budget, but the restricted setting actually works in the movie’s favour, functioning as a great way to relaunch the character in this perfectly-judged hyper-reality. Given that slow-motion is actually required by the story (a new drug makes the user feel like time has slowed), you’d be forgiven for expecting slow-mo of Zack Snyder proportions, but Travis thankfully ensures that these surreal sequences never outstay their welcome.
But crucially though, where Dredd really succeeds is in getting its titular character right. Wisely resisting the temptation to humanise or lighten him, this Dredd is exactly as he should be – dour, relentlessly serious and absolutely solid. All scowls, glowers and monosyllabic responses, Karl Urban has the necessary presence to pull it off, while happily keeping his helmet on and providing a movie voice which is second only to Tom Hardy’s Bane this year. That Urban manages to do all this is impressive enough, but to do it with just his body language and chin is even more remarkable. Elsewhere, Olivia Thirlby makes for an excellent entry point into this world, while Lena Headey is genuinely chilling as the scarred hooker-turned-overlord.
Literally blowing the memory of Stallone’s rightly-maligned clanger-vehicle away, Dredd understands the exact level on which it needs to work and gets the tone, look and approach just right. Sure, it’s comparable to The Raid, but it deserves to be – ahem – judged on its own merit. Bring on the sequel.