Most Americans are probably familiar with the character of Judge Dredd through the abysmal 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie by that name, which bore almost no stylistic resemblance to its source. That time they took one of the most cartoonish storylines from the comic and punched it up even further by attaching Rob Schneider as Stallone’s sidekick. Worse, Stallone insisted on removing Dredd’s iconic helmet and thus personalizing an intentionally impersonal character.
So when Dredd came along it was a chance to redeem the mistakes of the past. Obviously it’s impossible to do true justice to thirty-five years of established continuity, and screenwriter Alex Garland wisely doesn’t try, instead crafting a new story that supports the spirit of the character. It must be admitted, though, that this story shares much with The Raid: Redemption. That said, this is not simply a rip-off of that film, if only due to director Pete Travis’ fascinating visual experimentation.
The world of Dredd is pretty much your standard post-apocalyptic urban dystopia, where the entire American northeast from what used to be Boston to what used to be Washington has become one giant metropolis — Mega-City One — with shields holding back the radiation from the “Cursed Earth” outside. The only order enforced in the city comes from the Hall of Justice, and its Judges, who operate as police officers, detectives, judges, juries, and sometimes executioners. And among the most infamous is Judge Joseph Dredd (Karl Urban), who operates as a Dirty Harry-style cop taken to its ridiculous extreme.
On this day, Dredd is tasked with escorting and assessing the performance of a new recruit — Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) — whose marginal test scores would disqualify her if not for her impressive mutant psychic powers. They head into a two-hundred story tower block slum to investigate a triple homicide, only to find the whole thing controlled by the Ma-Ma Clan, so named after their leader, Madelaine Madrigal (Lena Headey). After they take her lieutenant, Kay (Wood Harris) captive, she seals off the entire block to prevent their escape and sends all the gangsters in the building after the two judges.
This much — the mission to fight their way up a gang-controlled apartment tower — is basically the core of The Raid, as well. But outside of that the differences start piling up. I will say, though, that taken strictly as an action film The Raid has Dredd beaten in a walk; the fighting — both hand-to-hand and with firearms — is much cleaner and more visceral in that film than in this one. However, Dredd has its own points to offer.
Chief among these are the visuals. Ma-Ma’s gang revolves around the production and distribution of a drug called “Slo-Mo”, which alter’s the user’s perception of time. Travis’ rendition of the Slo-Mo scenes is darkly gorgeous, despite being plainly gratuitous; he benefits here from the skill of longtime Danny Boyle cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The firefights are chaotic and disoriented, but a number of shots — many from overhead looking down the core of the block — provide some impressionistic takes on an ultraviolent gun battle. I must also here mention the score by Paul Leonard-Morgan — who also composed the score for Limitless — which has its own tricks for handling the Slo-Mo scenes.
Urban, thankfully, keeps his helmet on and embodies the Dredd character far better than Stallone ever did. And in setting Dredd up against Anderson as a foil, Garland’s script attempts to highlight the flaws of this radicalized authoritarian sense of justice. Whether it achieves this goal or not is another matter. Still, it earns points for trying that the previous Dredd flick never came close to.
Worth It: yes, though only as mindless eye candy.
Bechdel Test: fail.