A few months ago, audiences were subjected to Gareth Evan’s The Raid: Redemption (2012), a balls-to-the-walls Indonesian thriller in which a tactical police squad swarms an impoverished building complex and pretty much nothing else happens. For all its praise, I hated the movie. Now comes Dredd by director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland, which has got more or less the same plot, except the martial arts acrobatics have been replaced with lots of sci-fi gadgetry, three-dimensional slow motion, and, believe it or not, genuine characters. It’s all for the best, I assure you.
It’s worth noting this is not the first time the 2000 AD comic book serial has been adapted to the silver screen. Some may recall that, in 1995, Sylvester Stallone incarnated the titular Judge Dredd, a righteous but ultra violent super cop whose mandate embodies both halves of a Law and Order episode. If you don’t, count yourself lucky, though I should mention that Karl Urban’s rendition of the anti-hero feels somewhat reminiscent of Stallone’s, except he never takes off his helmet (as in the comics) or piles on the ham.
Otherwise, Dredd proves very much its own thing, tempering the extreme cynicism of the source material not by grinding it with Hollywood clichés but by providing a more humane interpretation of its universe. Take the low key aesthetics of Mega City One, for example, the way Travis fills every corner of the overpopulated metropolis with grime, wear, struggling businesses, and desperate bystanders: all signs of a compromised lifestyle. I dig as well the use of 3D to accentuate the mind-altering effects of Slo-Mo, making us privy to its appeal instead of taking the narcotic’s addictive qualities for granted. Of course, one could argue these slow-motion sequences contribute more to the film’s spectacle than to its plot.
Mind you, as I intimated at the beginning of this review, there isn’t much of one to speak of. On a day like any other, Judge Dredd is assigned to assess new recruit Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a young idealist who failed the Hall of Justice’s aptitude test but got a second chance owing to her telepathic abilities. He takes her to a murder scene that turns into a war zone when drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) seals the two-hundred-story edifice and orders its inhabitants to kill them. No surprise twist, no mystery villain: just two dedicated cops fighting against all odds.
The real story lies in the details. Take, for instance, the scene in which Anderson executes a helpless perp in accordance with her sworn duties as a street judge. The throwaway moment pays off beautifully when she enlists a young mother’s help later on, and it informs a crucial decision in the final act. By the same token, Ma-Ma’s assertion that the Hall of Justice doesn’t usually bother with Peach Tress Tower hints at an inevitable layer of corruption within Mega City One but also speaks volumes about our heroes, who chose the dangerous complex for their first assignment together. Anderson made her pick because she was eager to help. Dredd confirmed it because it falls within the letter of the law.
I love their dynamic. The titular character is, to some extent, a zealot in the way he recites the book and carries out its edicts without hesitation, doubt, or mercy. When the guy proclaims, “I am the law,” with his deep, gravelly voice, we get the sense that he means it literally. Anderson, on the other hand, represents the compassionate spirit of the law, what with her psychic connection to the people and her tendency to question orders all the while upholding their ideals. The two heroes’ mutual respect and growing affection provides an emotional through line to all the carnage as well as an intriguing thematic core, the idea being that law itself is incorruptible but ultimately misguided without someone to look at the consequences to human life.
Despite appearances, Travis’ film delivers a more substantial experience than The Raid: Redemption. Whereas the latter uses its claustrophobic premise as a gimmick to pack in as much violence as possible, Dredd limits the plot to accentuate its satirical nature. Consider the prominent role bystanders play in the action sequences, serving as constant reminders of those the Hall of Justice is meant to protect. The hundreds killed in Peach Trees prove the law’s imperfection. Dredd and Anderson’s heroic feats demonstrate its value.