Dredd is the best comic book adaptation of the year. Where The Avengers was a crowd-pleasing something-for-everyone effort and The Dark Knight Rises fumbled its lofty ambitions, Dredd goes its own hyper-authoritarian, gore-soaked way. It's a film that doesn't beg the audience to love it. So far it's grossed just over $19 million worldwide, a pittance next to fellow post-apocalyptic actioner Resident Evil: Retribution's $139 million. That isn't surprising since much of the filmgoing public still associates Judge Dredd with the reviled Sylvester Stallone adaptation, but it's depressing nonetheless.
In the future, war has reduced most of the US to an irradiated wasteland. In Mega-City One, 800 million survivors are crammed into a single urban sprawl stretching from New England to Washington, D.C. As scarcity and the collapse of previous governments have caused a massive crime wave, the city is ruled in an authoritarian fashion and policed by Judges, lawmen entitled to use lethal force and act as judge, jury and executioner.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is assigned a recruit, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson has failed her exams, but she may be valuable to the Hall of Justice for another reason: as a mutant, she has psychic powers.When the two investigate a seemingly routine triple homicide in a two-hundred-storey apartment block called Peach Trees, they stumble upon the empire of drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). After Ma-Ma shuts down the building to prevent their escape, the Judges must battle their way to the top against hundreds of gangbangers and desperate armed residents.
That's pretty much it. Where lesser comic book films stretch their material to pseudo-epic scope whether it fits the source material or not, there's a lot to be admired in Dredd's single-minded commitment to straightforwardness. Screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine) trims all the fat off the story for a lean ninenty-five minute running time. His script does not aspire to do more than chronicle a day's work for Dredd, the equivalent of a four-issue arc in the early 2000AD days, and that simplicity is the film's great strength.
Not that it lacks for strengths. Dredd is a masterclass in distilling the spirit of the comic book without taking on many of its details. The broad characters, physically deformed mutants, robots, laser guns, supernatural creatures and alien planets of the comic books are replaced by a deliberately basic, gritty future world. Technology barely exceeds present-day levels. Ordinary cars and weapons are used by everyone but the better-equipped Judges (and in the course of the film, even Anderson begins carrying an MP-5). The Judges' armour is far simpler and more practical-looking than its comic-book incarnation.
As for the character's heart and soul, Dredd does not attempt to sugarcoat the grimness of the source material. The comic books often overplayed their insanely dark future world for comic effect, but this was lost on quite a few readers. ('To my surprise, and even alarm', Pat Mills muses, 'a psycho character with no feelings
would regularly win out any day over a hero who had some humanity or
vulnerability.') By contrast, Dredd plays the Dirty-Harry-up-to-eleven concept straight, for a film that pleases everyone's inner authoritarian but troubles the soul. (That is, if satire is not as intrinsic to the concept as I think it is.)
The film is bolstered by three strong central performances. Urban, not allowed to take off his helmet, works his mouth and chin for all they're worth and affects a vocal chord-shredding growl. It sounds silly, but it works. Headey makes the most of the opportunity to exchange her restrained evil of Game of Thrones for unhinged villainy. Thirlby, meanwhile, shoulders the task of audience surrogate and standard 'newbie with a steep learning curve' character, communicating both doubt and increasingly strength effectively.
It's a jolly handsome film that should be seen in 3D. Slo-mo, Ma-Ma's drug that slows time down for the user, is exploited for numerous gorgeous shots of water droplets, explosions - and viciousness. Dredd's many gunfights delight in slow-motion shots of faces torn apart by bullets and other forms of unsavoury violence. Like its titular character, Dredd is single-minded, brutal, and singularly compelling.