Set in a dystopian North America, a large city called Mega-City One stretches from Boston to Washington D.C. In the city, 800 million dwellers live in huge concrete buildings up to 200-storey high. 17,000 cases are reported daily to the Justice Department which then dispatches its street judges—helmeted men and women, equipped with futuristic guns called ‘lawgivers’, who are given with not only the power to enforce the law, but also to convict and sentence law offenders on the spot. In other words, they’ve got a lawful permission to kill.
Instead of hammering us with details about the origins of the character or the beginnings of the story, screenwriter Alex Garland takes no punches and plunges us directly to one of Judge Dredd’s eventful days. On this particular day, Dredd is entrusted with a rookie female Judge named Anderson who failed her tests yet is given a second chance because she happens to be the most powerful psychic the Department has seen. The two of them then heads to one of the huge housing buildings called Peach Trees, to investigate a homicide that has just happened—three people were skinned and thrown off the balcony to death. This eventually leads them to a bigger problem, a drug lord called Ma-Ma, who is behind “Slo-Mo”, Mega-City One’s drug of choice which has the effect of slowing one’s perception of time to 1% of the reality. Having two Judges inside her building is something she will not risk, so she then shuts the whole building, trapping everyone in it and encouraging all the residents to help her kill the two Judges, over P.A, The Raid-style.
In fact, it’s quite impossible not to think about The Raid while watching Dredd. The premise is so similar that it’s natural to draw comparisons. The fact that Dredd is written way before The Raid is filmed seems to matter little to us moviegoers. When the trailer came out, some might have been skeptical, but ultimately the similarity proves to be not as off-putting as you’d think. And frankly, The Raid cannot be first movie to have that kind of premise. While Evans’ cult hit might be superior, Dredd is actually a pretty decent comic-based action movie. Although everyone has guns and there are no raw fist fights to be had, they are thrilling and cool-looking enough and hey, these guns can run out of ammo too.
The original comic strip, which has been running from 1977 in the British weekly sci-fi comic magazine 2000 A.D, originally has robots and aliens which have to be eliminated due to the limited budget of $45 million. The whole movie seems claustrophobic, naturally because of the trapped-inside-a-building setting and maybe also because of the budget. But in the apt hands of screenwriter Alex Garland—a frequent collaborator of Danny Boyle who brought us 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, among others—the tight script makes up for the shortcomings and the 95 minutes are used quite nicely.
The comic’s creator, John Wagner, once said that the reason why Judge Dredd’s face is always obscured by a helmet is because “it sums up the facelessness of justice—justice has no soul,” so it is probably intentional that Dredd’s character is rather flat and two-dimensional. He is the law; he doesn’t negotiate, sympathize or compromise. Karl Urban has to hide half his face throughout the movie and make do with scowls and gutturally-voiced one-liners. However, in the end of the movie, he does something disconcerting that quite betrays his initial persona. And no matter how cool one-liners can be, they can never escape being cheesy at most times.
Dredd’s partner of the day, Cassandra Anderson, luckily offers more color as she talks a bit about her background and spends the day without her helmet on, as it could, according to her, disrupt her psychic ability. Olivia Thirlby, whom you might remember from Juno, surprisingly makes quite a tough Judge. Well, she is small, which sometimes could look funny and unrealistic when she keeps dragging around a male convict who’s bigger than her. But she still plays a good sidekick and balances Dredd’s very comic-ish character well.
Scarred drug lord Ma-Ma is played by Lena Headey, Game of Thrones’ very own Cersei Lannister. A little back story is mentioned but overall, she just serves her purpose as a villain and there aren’t many details. The one who steals scenes is actually a scared, unnamed tech nerd of hers. If you’re wondering why he looks familiar, he’s none other than the Harry Potter movies’ Bill Weasley, Domhnall Gleeson. Here, the Irishman proves to be someone to watch and later this year we’ll be able to see him again in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.
Shot mostly on a 3D camera, a lot of the sequences are probably made for that purpose, especially the “Slo-Mo” scenes. Although cool-looking at first, the trick is played too many times and the movie could have done with less of such gimmicks. Overall, Dredd will entertain those of you who seek brainless action movies and yet, will not totally torture those who do not. And also note that this is actually a very violent and bloody flick. There are people being skinned, remember?