If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, then trust “Dredd” to get there by blasting its way through stone, steel, flesh and bone. Not to mention exposition, subplot, or any of that pesky stuff that stands in the way of telling a lean, mean story. Two protagonists, trapped in one location, with one thing driving them: get the bad guys before the bad guys get them. Talk about being direct.
But don’t mistake the film’s simplicity for simple-mindedness. It is a deceptively well-constructed and well-oiled little machine of a movie, considering how few moving parts it is actually comprised of. In places, “Dredd” is almost like a stage play, with just two or three actors facing off in an empty room. If a stage play featured body parts being shredded by bullets in slow-motion, that is.
“Dredd” is an extremely gory film. And it shows us that gore in prolonged, exacting detail, thanks to a drug called Slow-Mo. In the world of the film, this drug gives the illusion of time slowing down to a fraction of normal speed. Given how unrelentingly miserable life is in Mega City One, Slow-Mo is the perfect escape. It turns a single moment into a thing of beauty, where colours become more vivid than ever before, and everything suddenly appears more precious. I’ve got to praise cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle here, as he’s created sequences that are simply entrancing to watch. No wonder he is director Danny Boyle’s regular go-to guy (one of “Slumdog Millionaire’s” eight Oscars was for cinematography).
The slow-motion isn’t just a pretty effect either. Lest you think the film is glorifying violence, it’s not. In fact, by fixating on the destruction of the human body, it forces us to confront the very notion of on-screen violence as “entertainment”. Yes, the kills are turned into eye-candy, but they can also serve as a reflection on how impermanent life is, and how very fragile. This, along with the various little details sprinkled throughout, convinces me that “Dredd” isn’t merely a straightforward shoot-em-up.
The source material itself has never been straightforward, except to those who don’t get it — I’m looking at you, Stallone’s 1995 “Judge Dredd”. And it’s not just about the title character never taking off his helmet either, although this version staying true to that trait is a welcome gesture. In the “2000 AD” comic book anthology where he hails from, the uber-fascist Dredd was a satire of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain. Today, the character is still very much relevant, albeit in a slightly different context. Dredd continues to be about how the law acts with impunity, but here he represents a commentary about the irony of how, in a post-9/11 era, extremism is commonly dealt with using extremism. Now you could say I’m reading too heavily into a cops vs. gangsters pic. The thing is, there’s clearly something going on beneath the surface.
It’s also why comparisons to “The Raid: Redemption” are at best shallow and at worst, totally unfair (to both films). Both share a basic premise, and happen to have come out at roughly the same time. And both have turned out to be very satisfying action flicks. But they each go about doing that in their own distinct ways. One’s a martial arts free-for-all, the other essentially a Western with the Judge as indomitable sheriff. Also, just for the record, “Dredd” was written and went into production before “The Raid”, although the latter rushed out its release when its producers heard about the similarities. So let’s put to rest any accusations of which one’s the copycat.
On its own merits, “Dredd” doesn’t have the highly kinetic appeal of its so-called competitor. It’s even a little static in parts, especially in-between the action scenes where a game of cat & mouse unfolds. That doesn’t mean it’s boring. The pace is simply more measured, the tone more stoic. Just like its title character. And I like that about the film, because it’s something we seldom see much of anymore in the action genre today, what with all the short attention spans out there.
While Pete Travis directed this, I feel the creative hand of screenwriter Alex Garland giving the film its true identity. Apart from being responsible for the thematic nuances I discussed earlier, his words are half the reason why Dredd works so well as a character. The other half is of course Karl Urban, whose Clint Eastwood-inspired raspy intensity makes him out to be THAT quiet guy you never want to mess with. A role like this could easily come across unsympathetic or flat, but Urban gives us just enough hints of humanity behind the stony façade. Even so, Garland smartly puts someone more audience-accessible to bounce off our anti-hero. In rookie Judge Anderson, we get a nice balance of compassion and vulnerability to the rather severe, uncompromising side of the Judges. I like Olivia Thirlby here. She’s cute yet credible. Lena Headey makes a fairly threatening main villain, though in the end it would’ve been nice if they’d given Dredd a more worthy physical opponent.
The film’s low-budget limitations occasionally crop up to spoil some of the fun — the ending for example, could’ve been bigger. It also explains why most of the story is confined to one location. On the upside, having less means having to work harder to earn the thrills. Which “Dredd” does, in an old-fashioned, almost 80s throwback kind of way. If not for the oh-so-now “3D” in the title (which I refuse to use on general principle), I could see this playing as a double-feature with anything sci-fi by Paul Verhoeven. And that’s really the highest compliment I can give “Dredd”.
Now if there were any justice in this world, a lot more people would make a bee-line straight for this movie.