A far superior Judge Dredd movie to Stallones “I am duh lorr”, Pete Travis’ (although the conversation over how much of the finished edit belongs to Alex Garland getting all proprietorial will probably run and run) film is lean, gritty and ultra-violent. The pared-down, low budget approach finds an amenable plotline within the enclosed environment of gang-leader Ma-Ma’s Peach Trees tower block, which she puts into shutdown when Judges Dredd and Anderson apprehend a suspected perp (Wood Harris, better known as Avon Barksdale in The Wire).
The negative side is there’s not much in the way of satire here, either of the sharp or broad varieties, and what humour is present mainly consists of Dredd’s succinct growls in response to any given threat. At times John Carpenter’s urban siege movies come to mind (Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York), but the main yardstick will continues to be Dredd-in-all-but-name Robocop. Against which it will always come up short. The line “You have 20 seconds to comply” is surely a shout-out to Verhoeven’s classic.
Karl Urban may not have bulk/height on his side, but his Dredd is a marvellously uncompromised rendition of the character after the mess Sly made of him. Eastwood-voiced and always-helmeted, his inflexible justice-dispensing is enormous fun to watch. Olivia Thirlby also makes a strong showing as Judge Anderson (what happens with the badges if a judge has a double-barrelled name?), and some of the best moments in the film relate to her psychic acuity. Lena Headey’s going to have to watch being typecast as the villain, but she makes Ma-Ma suitably fearsome.
Most of the budget appears to have gone on blowing shit up, and this is where we see most of the futuristic tech (the various functions of Dredd’s gun). The effects of Slo-Mo are neat, but I suspect you need to see them in 3D to witness them at their best.
Travis stages the action with aplomb, and while the film relishes its goriness it doesn’t stop to dwell on it. Where the director comes unstuck is with the geography of Peach Trees; all the corridors and levels are much the same to the viewer, yet the characters know where they are. This is the area where The Raid, with which Dredd’s premise has been much-compared , really pulls out in front of its sci-fi counterpart. I’d go as far as saying that premise of Dredd is much more engaging but ultimately what it does with it, both in plot and execution, is less successful. The Raid goes all-out to produce giddy, high-octane, wall-t-wall action; Dredd is content to be what it is and no more. Which is fine, as long as expectations are held in check.
Paul Leonard-Morgan’s deliberate, driving synth score deserves a mention. Like any good score it serves the story rather than smothering it, reinforcing the atmosphere and pace of the film.
It’s a great shame this did negligible box office, as there was a lot of potential for future greatness with Urban as the lead. But with two cinematic strikes, what’s the betting we see a small screen rendition in another five or six years?