Dredd 2012 - Judgement is Coming

For the purpose of disambiguation, this review is of Dredd (2012), starring Karl Urban as Judge Dredd and Olivia Thirlby as trainee Judge Anderson.

When Dredd and Anderson respond to a grisly triple homicide in the high rise mega slum of Peach Trees, they have no idea that they’re walking into the heart of a ruthless criminal’s base of operations. Ex-prostitute Ma-Ma (played excellently by Lena Headey) is the kingpin of a cartel that has risen to supremacy through a brutal combination of extreme violence and drug trafficking. The drug in question is Slo-Mo, a substance which slows the user’s perception of reality to 1% normal speed.

I’ll admit I didn’t have high expectations for this film. I’m not a huge fan of Karl Urban, and I had suspicions that Judge Anderson would be, as happens all too often to female action leads, little more than eye candy. The prominent place of Slo-Mo in the trailers gave me flashbacks to the heavy-handed drug propaganda of the 80s and 90s.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Dredd surprised the hell out of me. It was really good.

Karl Urban does a surprisingly good job of channeling Stallone as Judge Dredd, minus the accent– which, to be honest, is a huge improvement. And Olivia Thirlby’s Anderson doesn’t need to act tough to appear hardened far beyond her trainee status. An orphan raised by the judiciary, possessed of a psychic gift provided by a freak genetic mutation, Anderson is a youthful judge capable of making an uncooperative detainee piss himself in terror during interrogation without even touching him.

Anderson wears the same armor Dredd does, albeit tailored to fit her stature. There is no “sexified” version of the Judges’ armor– which is as it should be, but surprisingly rare on the big screen. The costumes, props, and general environmental design are surprisingly good. The Judge armor has been given a major facelift, making it vastly more functional and realistic.

This realism extends to the set design, leading to a world that’s surprisingly easy to imagine if our exponential population growth continues. Much of the background footage was shot in Cape Town and Johannesburg, lending the visuals a certain gritty realism missing from your typical CG scifi flick.

Perhaps most importantly– and this is going to sound like strange praise– Dredd is notable for what it’s not.

It’s not tainted with sexism or barbs about women in positions of authority. It’s not a chest-thumping display of the state’s power. And it’s not riddled with thinly disguised anti-drug propaganda.

Slo-Mo is a net neutral; it’s a thing people do to escape the horror of a world from which there is no escape. The ruthless cartels that extract payment by any means necessary and engage in bloody turf battles are the real evil here. The “drugs are bad” propaganda so blatantly displayed a few decades ago is gone.

(Perhaps writers have realized that the message rings hollow in a world where there’s a pill for everything, and your doctor is more than happy to medicate you until you can’t remember your own name if you complain. Who needs pushers anymore, when your friendly psychiatrist or family doctor is more than willing to load you up with all the addictive mood-altering substances you could ever want?)

Slo-Mo is also used to brilliant effect as visceral violence and high-speed action are seen through the sparkling slow motion lens of the user’s perception. It’s an innovative technique that results in some incredibly cool shots and adds a ton of visual interest to the film.

In all, I found a lot to love about this film– and that’s an impressive statement coming from someone who almost universally disapproves of the scourge of retreads, remakes, and sequels that have invaded Hollywood.

Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma is a compelling and sympathetic villain, and Thirlby’s Judge Anderson is arguably the star of the film. Calm, self-assured and tough as nails, she somehow manages to hang onto her sense of right and wrong despite the horrors that surround her. And when things really go to hell, she’s capable of rescuing herself –and saving Dredd from a rogue Judge as well.

That said, Dredd is a deeply flawed character. Perhaps Neal F. Litherland put it best: “…the British audience he was made for understood that he was a totalitarian nut job who believed he was doing what it took to keep order, while the American audience mistakenly thought the character was a hero.”

For a completely spot-on summary of why Dredd is neither good nor neutral, check out the article Judge Dredd is Lawful Evil.

Final score: 8.5 stars out of 10.

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