The first time Hollywood tried to bring Judge Dredd to the big screen, the script wound up getting radically changed and eventually morphed into RoboCop. The second time they succeeded in getting a film, but 1995’s version starring Sylvester Stallone had, shall we say, a mixed reception. While it had a certain cheesy charm, it wasn’t considered very good on the whole. In 2012, another attempt was made, this time with director Pete Travis at the helm, and Karl Urban under the helmet.
It’s a definite improvement. For one thing, no Rob Schneider.
Dredd, like the comics that inspired it, is set a few hundred years into the future. The entire population of the United States now resides in one gigantic metropolis on the east coast. The rest of the nation is a wasteland. People live in oversized skyscrapers where each floor is equivalent to a small town, and there are hundreds of floors. The Judges keep the peace, with extreme force if necessary. Dredd is assigned to assess a rookie for candidacy for a full Judge position. Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) is inexperienced but she has one advantage most candidates don’t: she’s a mutant, and she got one of the good mutations. Anderson is a psychic, able to sense the presence and read the minds of those around her — a handy ability for a Judge.
Anderson’s psychic talents and Dredd’s capable experience are put to the test when they are sent to investigate a triple homicide. When they arrive, a local drug czar puts the whole Megatower into lockdown, and initiates a manhunt against the Judges. What follows is an extremely violent game of cat and mouse.
The story may not be terribly complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. This is an action movie that knows what it is, and what it’s audience is looking for. It’s fast-paced, frenetic, and fun to watch. The setting allows for a sense of claustrophobia to creep into the movie, and with the Judges having no idea when the next wave of attack is going to come, the relentlessness of the assault puts a real sense of danger into it. The occasional use of the drug “slo mo” — which alters the user’s perceptions — allows for an artistic use of extreme slow motion for a few scenes without making it seem obnoxious or gratuitous.
Thirlby and Urban fill their roles capably as the green rookie and the jaded veteran. Incidentally, Urban does utter the trademark line “I am the law”, but his delivery is nowhere near as over-the-top as some of Stallone’s utterances. Lena Headley plays the drug czar Ma-Ma, and she plays the role with a certain quiet, barely restrained insanity. It’s rare for an action film to have a female villain, particularly a violent one, but Ma-Ma shows that it can work. There is no question at any point that she is the most dangerous individual in her organization.
If Dredd has a weakness, it’s that the characterization is fairly thin. Dredd is gruff. Anderson is tough but compassionate. Ma-Ma is psychotic. That’s about as far as any of it goes. But it makes up for this by succeeding on the points that it tries to achieve; as an action spectacle, it’s a very solid film.