From the moment its title screen literally explodes into view, accompanied by Paul Leonard Morgan’s dirty, vicious industrial-metal score, Dredd embarks on a mission. The mission is not to be a meaningful film, a film with the biggest scale, or even one that wows audiences with impressive CGI. Instead, the mission is simple: be fun.
It’s a refreshingly simple mission that too many action films neglect in favor of meaningless bombast, melancholic atmospheres, or dense world-building. And while I certainly don’t want the likes of The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises to go away, I am ecstatic that a group of artists got together in 2010 to make a comic book action movie as lean, nasty, violent, and humble as Dredd. Because those qualities are what make it one of the best action films of the century.
Karl Urban plays the titular Dredd, a “Judge” who patrols the post-apocalyptic slum that covers the area from Boston to Florida called Megacity One. He is an on-field judge, jury, and executioner and he is incredibly adept at his job. He effortlessly recites his “judgments” to criminals, be they murderers, junkies, or vagrants. Urban never takes off the mask as Dredd, an admirable trait considering most action heroes want to show the world their pretty mugs. But Urban, like the film itself, is humble, and stays in spirit of the character and comics it’s based on. Relying on his gruff tone and chin, Urban still gives a fantastically cheeky, deadpan performance.
Olivia Thrilby plays Anderson, the new Judge and arguably the main character of the film. Her psychic abilities override her inexperience and Dredd is forced to take her under his wing. Their mission is take down Ma-Ma, played by a gloriously-evil Lena Headey. Ma-Ma took over the giant “megablock” (this movie fucking rules) and runs all the crime and drug-dealing within. Dredd and Anderson one of her lieutenants, a dealer of “slo-mo,” the drug that has taken over much of the Megacity and tricks the user into thinking time has slowed to one per cent of its speed. Ma-Ma locks the block down and orders her cronies to have them killed. Fans of The Raid: Redemption will undoubtedly notice the similarities in this set-up, but Dredd differentiates itself with its execution. This film is definitely lighter in tone than The Raid centers its action around gunfights instead of elaborately-choreographed punches and kicks.
Thirlby gets to play more of a human being. Anderson, unlike Dredd, experiences guilt and uncertainty with doling out judgments so readily. This conflict manifests subtly that one view might not convey the depth that this ostensibly-stupid movie has. This surprising character dynamic reveals a film that doesn’t condone the gung-ho approach of the judges as one would think. With Anderson, the film creates a dynamic between callous cynicism and narrow-minded ideas of “order” and more nuanced ideas of morality and humanity. To see which idea wins out at the end is just as satisfying as the seeing the gunfights.
And those gunfights are fucking rad. The concept of slo-mo allows the filmmakers a narrative excuse to showcase a tired gimmick with the film’s brilliantly realized aesthetic. Gratuitous blood sprays and tightly framed head shots presented in highly-detailed slow motion are peppered throughout the first half of the film. Just as the slo-mo gimmick seems to be getting overused, the filmmakers set it on the backburner until the climax, where it comes back into the fray in clever, ironic fashion. Filmed on a small (for Hollywood sci-fi) budget, Ddd contains griminess that most films either lack or don’t know what to do with. The production design conveys the humble, retro ambitions of the filmmakers. The film wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of action movies from the 1980s.
If you allow Dredd to envelop you, you will have fun. In my estimates, a film simply has to meet its own goal. Dredd wanted to be a fun action film and it succeeded. It’s a beautifully cohesive movie. The set design, the score, the characterizations, the editing, the badass monologues, the gory action, and the story all work in sync together. The result is a film that completely understands itself and what it wants to be.
You could level certain criticisms against: it doesn’t sufficiently flesh out its world and the main character isn’t really the subject of the story, but those complaints pale in comparison to the fun I had on both viewings and to the depth I probe on second viewing. Dredd and Anderson do not fall into the pitfalls of many buddy-cop characters; their relationship reveals a more nuanced portrayal of Judge’s system, and eventually reveals how breaking their rigid rules might be more beneficial. It’s also a great example of how to make an action film that doesn’t alienate the female audience. It places a man and two woman as the primary characters; Dredd, Anderson, and Ma-Ma. As her name suggests, Headey’s character represents a kind of deranged maternal figure, encapsulating malicious authority. On the flip-side is Dredd, whose brutal authority exists in the name of good and places him at the business end of Ma-Ma’s machine guns. Between them is Anderson, the young doe learning her way in the world trying to make a dent in the criminal network. She emerges as the soul of the movie while her surrogate parents fight to the death.
Watch it by yourself, watch it with friends, or watch it with booze (though you might find yourself wanting to flip over a truck afterward). All are great options. Any situation will allow you to enjoy Dredd. It s an unabashed and unpretentious movie that simply wants you to have fun. Ironically enough, it stands for even more than that, symbolizing a kind of lovingly-made cinema-for-cinema’s sake that doesn’t get enough attention or respect.