Dredd is the sort of film that appears crude and shallow on the surface. But the deeper you look, the better it gets.
In a post-apocalyptic future, several American states have combined into a giant metropolis called Mega City One. There are 800 million desperate citizens and criminals fighting to survive and dominate, respectively. Each of them must find their place in this chaotic, dangerous habitat, because the alternative beyond the city walls is a wasteland leftover from what was America.
To keep law and order within Mega City One, there are Judges, representatives of the Hall of Justice. These individuals police Mega City One’s diverse populace, with additional roles that strike fear into the hearts of criminals and citizens alike: judge, jury, and executioner. If a Judge deems the crime sufficient, they will shoot the criminal on the spot. It’s a hard, unforgiving approach to law, but the criminals are just as hard and it keeps the balance, but only just.
Dredd is a legendary Judge – not that the film explains this beyond a brief mention of his reputation – and in this adaptation, Karl Urban (Lord of the Rings, Star Trek) does a marvellous job of giving the grizzled veteran a mix of black humour and action-hero bravado. His partner is Judge Anderson, who is out on her first ever real call, and has a special ability the Halls of Justice want to harness to help fight crime in the city. Played by Olivia Thirlby (Juno, The Darkest Hour), she’s a hardened, yet humane character that acts as a more reasonable counterpoint to Dredd’s cynicism. There’s also a dark, cold, scary villain in “Ma-Ma” (Lena Headey, of 300 and The Broken fame). So far, so good.
Dredd‘s overall execution has transformed the cynicism I felt after seeing the trailer into respect. Almost the entire film takes place in what amounts to a housing estate. Small corridors, the odd shot of a 200-story courtyard space, and tiny apartments and other rooms mean that the awe-inspiring scale of Mega City One is only touched on briefly. It seems like a limitation, but given that the setting also acts as an accurate microcosm of the different demographics that exist within the mega metropolis, in a sense it does serve its purpose pretty well.
The glorification of extreme violence in the film, however, is pretty intense. It’s delivered at a level of extremity I’ve not witnessed since Saw, and even that series of shock-horror flicks didn’t rely on super-slow-motion to get across just how many shreds of someone’s cheek are blown aside by a bullet exiting their face, or what a human head looks like when it hits a floor from 200 stories up – a floor the audience can see through like glass. It’s essentially gore pornography, and while the gunplay is actually surprisingly heavy with realism in that people actually go down, fast, and no one is invincible, it’s all a little much.
Points are, however, duly awarded for the exceptionally well-shot slow-motion sequences, as not all of them incorporate blood and guts. Gory though some of them may be, altogether they are astonishingly well brought out as a 3D film. In fact, the special effects in Dredd are generally extremely well executed, and the film’s environments and SFX seem built with 3D in mind, justifying the experience of watching cinema through a pair of 3D glasses.
Anderson is, unfortunately, pigeon-holed as The Hero’s Female Sidekick, and that’s a frustrating thing to see, because on the surface it almost feels like the filmmakers thought they’d be letting down the action-adventure-comic-book genre if she wasn’t naked or ridiculously vulnerable at some point. But what’s interesting about the way it’s played out is that the character whose vulgar visions of Anderson we are party to is played as a villain, and her victory comes from asserting her independence and ability to rise above his immaturity. It’s an interesting message and one that makes for a nice change from the ongoing status quo, but I’m concerned that the demographic that loves boobs ‘n’ guns in film won’t notice that subtext.
Altogether, Dredd is a well-shot, well-acted piece of comic book fun, and I’m curious as to how it would play out had they hunted a single criminal across the city – an idea that is potentially not as focused. Despite the issues I have with Anderson’s characterisation and depiction, I’m still content that I got a good look at Mega City One’s populace, and I heartily recommend seeing it if you’re tired of today’s more generic sci-fi ideas.
See the trailer for Dredd here: