I haven't seen a movie like Dredd in a long time. So, no surprise that it kicked off and wowed audiences on the first night of San Diego Comic-Con.
A reimagining of the 2000 AD label comic book that inspired Judge Dredd, the 1994 Sylvester Stallone action flick that took sci-fi wackiness to new heights, Dredd scales back on the futuristic elements and puts an emphasis on the brutality in store for the Judge's criminal victims. In this not-so-distant world, a Judge has the power to decide your fate right upon capture — and usually, the sentence involves some type of ammunition being fired into the offender's skull. Dredd is a grimy, smoldering, relentless 90 minutes that manages to inject its in-your-face fight scenes with an unexpected bit of humanity. Shocking, considering the buckets of blood spilled during Judge Dredd's warpath, which begins from his very first appearance.
This time around, Dredd is played by Karl Urban, a chiseled beast of a dude who balances the machismo with a healthy dose of one-liner comedy. A great central hero. To investigate a series of murders connected to one of Mega City 1's most notorious crime figureheads, Dredd is partnered with an exact opposite: Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby), a new recruit who makes up for her lack of killer instinct with a mutant psychic power. She may not have the throat-ripping capabilities of Dredd, but once this girl gets in a baddie's head, it's over. Dredd is wary of his new sidekick potential — even more so when the challenge they face reveals itself. Cooped up at the top of a 120+ story building is Ma-Ma (Lena Hedley), whose operation will soon put a new drug — dubbed "Slo-Mo" — in the hands of every Mega City 1 citizen. To stop her, Dredd and Cassandra must slay her goons as they ascend the skyscraper. Simple premise, lots of bloodshed.
Unlike this year's The Raid, which took a similar approach to the non-stop antics of a martial arts film, Dredd opts for the slow burn approach. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) wants us to take a big whiff of every musky apartment in Ma-Ma's "Peach Trees" tower; he wants us to feel every drip of sweat that trickles down Dredd's stubble, while the law enforcer waits patiently to attack; he wants us to feel the complete stop of time when the Slo-Mo drug kicks in and even droplets of suddy bath water hang in the air from a splash; and he wants us to feel like we're in the front seat of a Gallagher show when Dredd fires an explosive bullet into the mouth of a henchman and watches the head explode into bits (all in clear and crisp 3D). Dredd is near-fetishistic in its approach to gore – I found myself mouth agape making audible "EEEEEEEEAAAAH" sounds throughout the film — but plays well to the lead character's ferocious nature.
The hyper-style doesn't end with Dredd's unique array of finishing moves either; Cassandra's telepathy is a weapon of the senses that Travis mines for every flashy montage sequence he can squeeze out of it. In one sequence, Cassandra uncovers an important clue by subjecting one of Ma-Ma's assailants to mental torture, a terrifying whirlwind of imagery of saturated nightmares (if you've ever watched Saw after scarfing down an undercooked burrito, you know what I mean). Travis amps "MTV editing" in these sequences, an assault to the senses that's just as purposefully grating as the gritty fight sequences.
What makes the whole thing worth watching are the film's two leads. Urban has the thankless task of playing Dredd under the Judge's signature mask — someone obviously forgot to tell the police force of the future that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Urban makes up for it with a spectrum of snarls and a voice that sends chills down the spine. He also knows his way around comedy timing (as evidenced by his equally-impressive performance as Bones in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek), delivering kitschy zingers that click with Dredd's rough and tough world. The yin to his yang, Cassandra could have been another helpless female costar who steps in with magical powers when the time is right, but Thirlby is the real heart and soul of Dredd, breathing compassion into a dimly lit situation and reflecting the grey morality of the entire Judge program. Why are people cool with cops coming in and blowing them away when they see fit? Why is that the new definition of heroism? The script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) is smart to ask those questions, and Cassandra is the perfect proxy. Thirlby, as adorable as she is, plays the gal fierce, a sensible kind of Judge that can live side by side with Dredd.
There are a lot of people who won't be able to stomach Dredd, partly for the level of violence, partly for the consistency and pace of how that violence is unleashed. The small scale and singular location of the action don't allow Dredd to keep the surprises coming. After awhile, watching human heads splatter like water balloons becomes taxing and unenjoyable (which some psychologists may say should have been the case in the first place). Hedley does a decent job of making her psychotic Ma-Ma into a wicked villain who deserves her due, but without a fleshed out cause and bigger picture implications, it's hard to care. Her squad of faceless men are more like punching bags then characters. But over-the-top mayhem has its place, and when accompanied by a badass like Dredd and a pumping electronica score, it's hard not to cheer when the Judge lays down the gruesome law. Dredd isn't a great film, but it's a great Comic-Con film — one worth catching at midnight and screaming your lungs out all in good, absurd fun.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate]