Dredd is clearly a movie that has been made by people who fully understand the source material and respect it. This is by far its strongest asset and it helps carry the production through some of its short comings. It should also be noted that this is one of the most gritty and violent comic adaptation you’re likely to see for a while. It has been rated R is the US and went so far as to achieve an “18″ certificate in the UK. The 3D does add a rather sensationalist element to the proceedings with bullets passing through peoples faces in slow motion and blood spattering across the screen. Yet it works quite well and is reminiscent of Judge Dredd’s origin on the luridly coloured pages of 2000 AD.
As soon as the movie starts we are dragged into the decaying, over crowded and squalid world of Mega-City One. Crime is rampant among the 800, million strong population and the Judges provide summary justice among the city’s denizens. A new drug Slo-Mo is rife on the streets, with its reality slowing side effects. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) along with rookie partner Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirby) investigate the source of the new narcotic. This lead to them to a two hundred storey tower block controlled by drug baron Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). A violent confrontation begins, resulting in the judges having to fight their way out through an army of criminals and killers.
The story is simple and totally in accord with its central character. It is a very targeted production which after opening with establishing shots of Cape Town doubling as Mega-City One, becomes confined mainly to the tower block and surrounding locations. The production design by Mark Digby is very creative and certainly does as much as it can with the movies modest budget. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle creates a interesting visual style by contrasting the overall decay and squalor with the beauty of the slow motion scenes when people partake of the drug Slo-Mo. The visual effects are stylised and better than I was expecting. CGI violence seldom can compete with physical effects, but it mainly works within this production, suiting the required style.
Alex Garland’s script is minimalist and very much in the right idiom. As a result we get a Judge Dredd who has little to say and remains somewhat of an enigma. The jury is still out as to whether he is an iconic old west style hero or an über fascist. Karl urban excels in the role and firmly keeps his helmet on, which will please the purists. For those looking for a greater character development, Olivia Thirby has somewhat more to do, but overall the narrative is lean on both plot and back story. One can argue that this is all that is required for such a movie, although I would point out that John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 managed to explore similar themes with much more rounded protagonists.
Pete Travis directs with confidence an does not shy away from the nature of the central character. The main reason the 1995 adaptation of the Judge Dredd failed, was because it stripped away all the harsher elements of the plot and replaced them with humour, pathos and optimism. It also made the star the focus of the movie and not the character. You’ll find none of that here. However, despite all its good points, Dredd does have areas of weakness. Some of the location shots in Cape Town are populated with contemporary vehicles and props that break the immersion. The use of slow motion in some of the action scenes does become a little repetitive at times. The opening narration could have been better and perhaps a little more back story on some of the characters would have been beneficial for narrative reasons. Also, through no fault of its own, the storyline of Dredd bares a similarities to the recent action movie The Raid, which was earlier this year. It has to a degree stolen its thunder.
Ultimately, Dredd is a very good, but not outstanding action film. It sticks to its guns (no pun intended) and give the fan base what it wants. I certainly think that if a franchise does emerge then there is scope for a second movie to really reach its full potential. As is stand Dredd is a commendable, honest and old school action movie that dares to buck the trend and go for a higher rating, rather than dilute its content in pursuit of wider box office success. It once again proves that if you want to adapt a comic based franchise successfully, you need to understand it fully and stay true to its core ethos. Hollywood take note. This is how it’s done properly.