Sometime in the late nineties Hollywood figured out there was a massive well of money out in the world waiting to be tapped, a whole generation of teenagers wanting to spend their allowances on action movies but too young to be admitted into the R-rated showings. And so was born the PG-13 action movie, a decisive departure from the gloriously gory action films from the decades before, and ever since then if an action movie was rated R it was likely begrudgingly serious. Thankfully though, the occasional director comes along who ignores the younger demographic and instead opts to makes an action movie for adults, an offering of joyously unrestrained violence and mindless indulgence (not to say that violence is something to be condoned, but spandex-outfitted superheroes trading haymakers with no real sense of danger gets old really quickly). I was initially tempted to place films by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan in the letter “D” spot, filmmakers I hugely admire, but I gladly chose Pete Travis’s Dredd for the very fact that it is a great representation of a quietly reemerging trend of cinema – action movies for grown-ups.
Based on the British comic book character “Judge Dredd,” the film follows the title character, played with hints of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry gruffness by the universally underappreciated Karl Urban, a lawman of post-apocalyptic America who is ordered to supervise the real-world assessment of rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). The two visit a massive apartment block to investigate a triple homicide, but they are interrupted when a psychotic drug-lord called Ma-Ma (Lena Heady) locks them in the building and attempts to hunt them down – and so fight begins. There are lots of things to admire about a plot so simple, but one of the best things about Alex Garland’s script how unburdened it is of life lessons and heavy metaphors. There’s no glossy overarching theme of self-sacrifice, no quest for self-discovery, and no narratively over-facilitated male/female friendship underscored with sexual tension: Judge Dredd is the good guy, Ma-Ma is the bad guy – period.
As admittedly blunt as Dredd is, there were so many smart and creative choices made that save it from being unforgivably shallow and square. The cast is talented but not pretentious; Paul Leonard-Morgan’s lo-fi techno score is pitch perfect; Garland punctuates his script with simple information lends itself to being just believable enough without over-sharing. But on top of everything there’s Anthony Dod Mantle and his cinematography. There are plenty of movies on which time and effort has been utterly wasted to make them 3D, but Dredd isn’t one of them; in fact, it happens to be one of the lone few where viewers are at a loss having not experienced it in its third-dimension majesty. Whereas most resign to using 3D effects simply as a curio, or in an attempt to enliven the action, or most likely to beef up the ticket prices, Mantle designs his 3D photography to provide a unique experience.
In this film’s particular universe, the narcotic of choice is Slo-Mo, a drug that makes the user feel as though time is passing at 1% its normal speed. In all those moments when the junkies take a hit, the audience gets to walk through that weird glowing netherworld where everything hums and glows with strobe-light trippiness. One scene shows Dredd and Anderson busting in on a drug den, and you get to see the whole thing through a stoner’s eyes: the skin of a thug ripples with the blast of a grenade, a bystander’s face blooms into ribbons of blood and teeth after getting shot in the face. It’s amazing and disturbing and so admirable innovative all at once. Another favorite moment is getting an unparalleled view of what happens to the human head when a person hits pavement face first after falling two hundred stories of a building. Any top critic who slammed this movie for being unimaginative, and there were a fair few, is snobby and narrow-minded. Anyone who can’t manage to at least appreciate this movie for its technical merits doesn’t deserve to say they love the movies.