Anderson: Sir, helmets interfere with my psychic abilities. Judge Dredd: Think a bullet in the head might interfere with them more.
The second attempt to launch Judge Dredd as a bonafide franchise, after 1996's box-office flop with Sylvester Stallone unforgivably removing the title character's helmet, Dredd is unquestionably a better effort in terms of style, tone and spirited execution. It's unfortunate the earlier failure was likely responsible for forcing the film-makers to narrow the scope with small-scale mission, but it's not unreasonable to aim for a Pitch Black-style hit that will convince a studio to greenlight a Chronicles of Riddick-sized sequel. Trouble is, 2012's Dredd had the opposite luck to David Twohy's Riddick franchise—failing to make its $45m budget back during its theatrical release, so the chances of a follow-up with the fiscal clout to better explore Mega-City One are low.
But at least fans of the 2000 A.D comic-book's poster boy have this valiant attempt; a British-South African co-production shot around Cape Town and Johannesburg, which lends the movie an unexpected bleary glow in its exterior scenes, in stark contrast to the dark Blade Runner influences back in '96. The set-up is pretty straightforward: in an unspecified future, the USA has become an irradiated wasteland (nicknamed the Cursed Earth) and 800 million survivors now live in a metropolis known as Mega-City One that sprawls across the eastern seaboard. Crime's prevalent and the only way to quell anarchy is by employing fascist "Judges" to literally acting as judge, jury and executioner at ground level. The most illustrious of whom is the eponymous granite-jawed Dredd (Karl Urban); who in this movie takes a psychic rookie called Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out into the field for assessment, only to become trapped inside a 200-storey building where they must fight for their lives against resident drug lord Ma-Ma (Game of Thrones' Lena Headey).
Urban's chin may not be up to Ron Perlman or Bruce Campbell's gold standard, but he has the hoarse voice and brusque attitude down pat without overplaying things into a cartoon. I had early reservations that we were getting Dirty Harry re-imagined as an inner-city Power Ranger, but the character found enough gravity to keep me invested in his life-or-death plight. There's no massive arc for Dredd and he doesn't learn anything by the end (which suits the character), but this was nicely leaven by his growing acceptance and respect of young Anderson.
Speaking of whom, Thirlby's surprisingly good as the "mutant" apprentice with ESP, and gets one of the better scenes during an inventive psychic interrogation of henchman Kay (The Wire's Wood Harris). She's also the heart of the entire movie, while Dredd's the muscle. Lena Headey's less memorable as the sorely underwritten villain Ma-Ma, which is easily the film's biggest fault. A larger-than-life character like Dredd demands an opponent of equal measure (physically and/or psychologically), but Ma-Ma's inexcusably bland and it robs the movie of emotional impact. I don't blame the actress (who does what she can with thin material), but rather screenwriter Alex Garland for failing to give us what this movie desperately needed: a fun, futuristic equivalent of Die Hard's Hans Gruber. By the time Dredd and Ma-Ma finally come face-to-face, you really don't care.
The action is decent, but nothing lingers in the memory or screams for a re-watch. It doesn't help that the movie's premise is so similar to The Raid (released months before), as that film's easily one of the most gruelling and inventive action flicks of the past five years. In Dredd, they slam on the brakes too much with Matrix-y action scenes designed with 3D in mind, using the fun excuse of a popular drug that slows the perception of time down to 1% of normality. The camera takes full advantage of slow-motion blood spurts and copious amounts of flying glass. I'm sure it looked marvellous in 3D on a big cinema screen, but the effect is reduced on a 2D home TV (which is where the movie will be seen by the majority of its audience for years to come). Still, I'm sure many people will enjoy the Blade-like visuals of people's arms being blown off by booby-trapped weapons and heads being turned into soggy blood-sacks by point-blank gunfire.
Dredd oozes indie SF, occasionally resembling a resourceful fan-film in the best sense of the word. As a calling card for getting more money to explore the depths of Mega-City One and the desert beyond its borders, I'd certainly like to see more from the team behind this. However, I can understand why Dredd didn't crossover to general audiences upon release. It's a mix of ideas and inspirations that feel a little old-fashioned in some respects, and nothing really grabs you by the throat. Urban does well with a tricky character to make interesting, but it bothered me Dredd lacked a sense of mythic proportion in everyone's eyes. Isn't he supposed to be the meanest bad-ass in town? Why isn't he viewed as an awe-inspiring celebrity in this? It's a genuine surprise when a gang of traitorous Judges are called into action by Ma-Ma and tasked with killing Dredd, because until that moment you don't get the feeling Dredd would have upset people in his own line of work.
Overall, we're still waiting for an unreservedly great Judge Dredd movie—but maybe we already got it with the more interesting and nuanced RoboCop? This version corrects many of the problems from the '96 debacle, but it still lacks the comic's spirit. Maybe this world's a product of the late-'70s that other franchises have borrowed from so well that the original's left looking tired three decades later.
directed by Pete Travis / written by Alex Garland (based on the comic strip by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra) / starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey & Wood Harris / 95 mins.