Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Dredd

When last we saw Judge Dredd on the big screen, Sylvester Stallone was wearing the helmet and shield flanked by Diane Lane and Rob Schneider for two hours of glorious campy action circa 1995.  Needless to say, no Oscars were awarded for the performances in that film.  Some seventeen years later, Dredd makes his return to the big screen in a movie best described as an amalgamation of various action plots all rolled up into an unapologetic B-movie package.  Less slick and less tongue-in-cheek, Karl Urban’s version of the gun wielding judge is a grittier and more violent take on the character.

The film is set in Mega City One, a crime riddled place nestled in the northeast corner of the U.S. where the only thing standing between the guilty and the innocent are street patrolling judges, who not only act as judge, but also serve as jury and executioner.  The plot finds Judge Dredd on a day when he is charged with evaluating a rookie, Judge Anderson played by Olivia Thirlby.  While investigating a triple homicide, the two protagonists find themselves caught in the crosshairs of a drug cartel.

Based on a comic property from IPC Media, the movie is set in a post apocalyptic world rife with urban-warfare conditions and features such action movie elements as ruthless drug cartels, massive gun play, and the veteran and rookie cop dynamic between the protagonists.  Clearly this is a melting pot of action genre plot mechanisms loaded with allusions to a handful of other films ranging from Training Day to New Jack City, which at times makes it feel like a collection of borrowed plot points.  What works for this film is that it is a B-movie at its core and director Pete Travis and his creative team embrace this.  While there are moments when it borders on low rent and at times directorial short cuts are apparent, the lack of the prototypical Hollywood polish adds to the gritty quality of the film and reinforces the sense of decay that permeates the sets.  This isn’t a lavish story or an intricate plot with twists and turns.  This is a tense, violent, straight line narrative that is taut and well paced.  Sure, no awards of excellence will be lavished onto this version of Dredd either, but then that is clearly not the objective of Travis and his crew.  Theirs is an exercise in action and suspense.

In some ways, the nature of the title character makes it difficult to judge Urban’s performance as Dredd.  Such is always the case when an actor wears head gear that conceals his/her face throughout a performance.  And while he clearly is adept at holding Dredd’s signature snarl, the helmet prevents you from seeing Urban’s facial expressions and this disconnects the viewer from the protagonist.  That Dredd is more of a doer than a conversationalist exasperates this chasm.  Playing opposite Urban is Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson.  Of all the characters in the movie, hers is the only one that undergoes a personal journey – the only one who is not static.  Because of this, by time the end credits role, the film feels almost as much hers as it is Karl Urban’s.  Of the principle cast, her work stands out as best.

As for the rest of the cast, I found Wood Harris (Remember the Titans) and Warrick Grier as nefarious henchman to be adequate and not at all remarkable, while Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the clan techie strikes a sympathetic chord.  My biggest disappointment with this movie is with Lena Headey as the prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma.  Heady (300) has in the past turned in some strong performances, but her work here in this movie can best be described as a cracked out version of Sarah Clarke's Nina Myers from 24.  Her character is paper thin and in no way compelling and the iron grip she possesses over the men in her cartel does not feel credible.  The only threat she poses to our protagonists comes in the form of obedient henchmen with guns and once that is stripped away, you begin to wonder what the fuss is all about.

When you look at the film in its totality, it is an entertaining albeit flawed movie.  What makes it entertaining is that there is a simple narrative with a clear objective and mechanisms in place to keep the plot rolling forward.  The locked down high-rise and the wave of goons keeps the tension amped up enough to keep viewers engaged even if the inevitable outcome is telegraphed.  At the end of the day, the cast and crew make no apologies for Dredd being a violent B-movie (nor should they), so I don’t feel compelled to do so on their behalf either.  While the movie may be a bomb at the box office ($6M opening weekend), I would still recommend this as a rental.  Action movie enthusiasts will find entertainment value in it, while those looking for deep character development and emoting will perhaps not.  Still, it’s worth a look.

Standout Performance: Olivia Thirlby.  She rebounds nicely with Dredd after appearing in one of the worst movies I have seen in the last year, The Darkest Hour.


  1. IMHO Dredd is more a B+. Saw it in 3D and the action is epic.