The basic aim of Dredd is simple – it needs to be bold, true to the source material and full of juicy violence, enough to wipe out the memories of the notoriously half assed Stallone attempt of 1995 that threw plenty of money at the screen without bothering to work on anything resembling a decent script.
The character of Judge Dredd, now entering his 35th year in UK comic 2000AD (they know it’s 2012 - don’t ask), isn’t a complicated one. He is, as he is fond of stating, the law. The time is the future, and amidst the wasteland that is America there is a single, massive city with 800 million inhabitants, appropriately called Mega City One. It’s quite the shithole, and the only thing that stands between it and total chaos are the Judges, trained for years to be the ultimate in law enforcement, yet so outnumbered they can only handle 6% of the crimes committed. This, people, is as thin as the blue line gets.
The film is written by long time fan Alex Garland (28 Days later, Sunshine), and has had plenty of input from Dredd’s creator (and still main writer even now) John Wagner. Filmed in South Africa on what passes for a tight budget these days (especially for Sci-Fi), it could be compared to District 9 in terms of the sheer effort put into it, with a result that is similarly impressive although aesthetically miles apart. Director Pete Travis (Endgame) does an excellent job, and between them they have turned in a film that will stand the test of time as a superior, adult action movie.
The premise is reasonably simple, something that works well as an introduction to what is, in the comics at least, a sprawling future world. Dredd is accompanied on patrol by rookie Judge Anderson, very well played by Olivia Thirlby, who is on the verge of failing her final assessment but is being given a second chance because of her powerful, and rare, psi abilities. A routine triple homicide (it’s that sort of city) turns into a siege when they are trapped in a massive tower block by criminal nutjob Ma Ma (Lena Headey) and forced to fight their way out and stop her manufacturing the addictive new drug, Slo Mo. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than that, but this is the basic set up and it works very well indeed, allowing for plenty of violence, some character development and no few explosions.
I can’t write this review without focussing on Karl Urban, who has previously stood out for his excellent turn as Dr McCoy in the Star Trek revival. Not afraid to go through an entire movie with a helmet on, he is spot on as Dredd. He gives us an emotionless machine, a man who cares for nothing but the law, but a man you want to get behind and cheer on as he splats bad guys left right and centre. The humanity comes from Anderson, and it helps that Thirlby doesn’t have to wear a helmet herself, with the handy excuse that it interferes with her psi abilities. Between them they give us the tired old wardog and the 21 year old rookie on the streets for the first time, and you sympathise with the life of a Mega City Judge.
Some people have criticized the apparent similarities between Dredd and the recent film The Raid: Redemption, in which Indonesian cops storm a tower block and much chop sockey ensues. To be honest, I was a little worried myself, but having seen both films I can happily confirm that they are nothing alike. Whilst The Raid is a pretty intense martial arts film which is rather dull between fights (although the fights are awesome), Dredd is a tight film all the way through, with the plot more than an excuse to go from fight to fight.
In conclusion, I can heartily recommend this film, in case you hadn’t guessed. It’s sort of like a cross between Robocop and Die Hard, all moderned up and with better music. It’s no coincidence that those are two of the most kick ass action films ever, and Dredd borrows from the best, although as Robocop stole from Dredd in the first place it’s more like recovering pinched property. The 3D is actually worth shelling out for, and there are some beautiful sequences where it comes into it’s own, whilst the film itself is gritty and dirty, although not without a few lighter moments amidst the carnage. The humour in Dredd’s comic strips comes from the city around him rather than his own actions, and here’s hoping we’ll see Alex Garland penning a sequel that allows us to wander through Dredd’s world. Quite simply a superior action film, and whilst it’s no masterpiece (then again, it’s not supposed to be) it’s as good as fans could ever have hoped. Here’s to the sequels…