Comic book adaptations have been both a blessing and a blight upon cinema these last few years. On one hand we have been given some amazing adaptations such as Sin City and Watchmen. On the other we have been handed shameless set up films such as Green Lantern that serve virtually no purpose other than to maybe pump out sequels that promise actual stories later. Yet some of these adaptations are still just bad altogether, see: Daredevil. Then we have those looking for redemption such as Dredd, based on the Judge Dredd comic books. Having already suffered one lackluster film in 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone, can director Pete Travis make Dredd hit the mark, or is this brand of justice just another misdemeanor?
In the future, America has become a wasteland. Boston to Washington D.C. has become known as Mega City One, a massive expanse where crime rules the streets. The only order within the chaos is a force known as the Judges. They alone are judge, jury, and executioner. The most infamous and feared within the city is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban). However, today he has been asked to assess Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant with extremely powerful psychic abilities. Anderson has barely failed the general tests but shows such promise that the uppers in law enforcement want to waive her score. With the rookie in tow, Dredd heads into the street and ends up checking out a homicide at the Peach Tree apartment complex, which is ruled by Ma-Ma (Lena Heady). Soon Dredd and Anderson find themselves locked into the two-hundred floor building where everyone wants them dead and the only way out is through.
Anyone who has seen The Raid: Redemption will draw immediately comparisons to Dredd. Rightfully so since they are the same concept in different time eras (and countries). Both films involve being caught in an apartment complex, extremely powerful villains, corruption, loads of violence, and some of the most intense action filmed in years. They are essentially on the same level and sometimes seem similar scene for scene (for example, both films involve action sequences in drug labs). The big difference is that The Raid focuses more on martial arts as it goes on whereas Dredd pumps out bullet after bullet. In this respect, the films actually play to audience preference. Martial arts fans will prefer The Raid whereas gunfight fans will likely enjoy Dredd more.
The best part of Dredd is, without a doubt, the action. Little time is wasted getting into the gritty bits. Dredd is, what some hope, one of the first in the revival of the extremely violent action genre. The shoot outs in here are nasty to the core with bullets firing through the cheeks of oppressors and teeth following with the exit wound. Skulls burn, limbs explode, people get ripped apart by gunfire, there are skinnings, gore is painted against the walls, eyes are ripped out—and all is shot gloriously. If there ever were a film to see in 3-D, this is it. Though the drug rushes in here are worth the trip too. The introduction of the drug SLO-MO brings out some gorgeous cinematography and a very memorable shoot-out.
Some might find the lack of story to be a little disheartening. The main plot of the movie is for Dredd to assess Anderson and make sure justice is administered. Once they get caught in Peach Tree the film is an uphill battle from there (for the characters, not for your attention). The way the film raises the stakes is more interesting. Turning the apartment inhabitants (a tenant count which bigger than many cities in America) against the Judges is just one way the film immediately ups the ante. Things only get more insane from there.
This is where the performances are forced to shine over the fairly lackluster plot (which is less of a problem than one might believe, actually). Karl Urban as Dredd puts up a perfect role. Although he is generally silent, even devoid of one-liners, he is still the one Judge no one would ever want to mess with. His stoic and extremely serious demeanor are a perfect for the gritty, apocalyptic setting. Not to mention his ability to scowl is now legendary with this film alone.
Lena Heady as Ma-Ma puts on an absolutely stellar performance, but one would expect no less from the same woman that portrays Cersei Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones. She plays a magnificent blend of apathy and irritation. She is frightening when she goes over the intercom and when she casually demands the ways in which an individual is to be killed. Every time she is on screen she steals the show. Even as short and scrawny as she is in here, she manages to be a thousand times more intimidating than any brute with a gun.
Olivia Thirlby as the rookie Anderson is also fantastic in her performance. Where one would expect her character to quickly become baggage and a perpetual blight on the film, she is just the opposite. Not only turning in a great performance, she also manages to be a useful character. Instead of her psychic abilities being more shoehorned in as some lame plot device to be used once or twice, she and her powers are actually useful start to finish. The means in which the filmmakers have her use them is worth a watch alone.
Dredd is the film the comic books deserved from the get go. It is violent, unforgiving, well executed, and refreshing for the action genre. The only complaint that one might have about this, that is noticeable throughout, is the action sequences are usually a little too brief. Though what it lacks for in action it often makes up for tension. This is one of the best comic adaptations to come out in 2012. Hopefully Judge Dredd will grace our silver screens again soon and splatter them with more baddie skulls. Judgment has come, now witness its execution.