When it comes to comic book adaptations, there are two basic issues: Is it a good adaptation of the character, and is it a good movie. It’s hard to hit both notes. Wanted, for example, is an enjoyable movie but not a particularly solid adaptation. On the other hand, Punisher: War Zone is an excellent adaptation of the character of Frank Castle, but an atrocious movie. More often than not, you get lazy efforts like Ghost Rider or Catwoman. There are the rare films that hit both notes: The first couple of X-Men films, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Marvel’s Avengers films.
And now, we have Dredd. For you fans of the comic, I’m delighted to say you can now wash the bitter, acrid taste of Stallone’s Judge Dredd from your mouth. In fact, you can wipe if from your memory wholesale, because Dredd, directed by Pete Travis (Endgame, Vantage Point), stars Karl Urban as the Judge Dredd you’ve been waiting for. And better yet, it’s a damn good movie. Not perfect, but still thoroughly enjoyable.
One of the best aspects of Dredd is that it eschews the origin story approach. It gives a quick background — nuclear war has laid waste to society as we know it, and a massive, sprawling city — Mega-City One — is one of the last remaining vestiges of society. A vast, crime-ridden megalopolis that stretches from Boston to DC, its only saving grace is that it’s better than the mutant-infested radioactive wasteland beyond its walls. There is but one law in the decrepit, decaying Mega-City One, and that law is the Judges. They are literal judges, juries and executioners, heavily armed and armored cops who pass sentences on the spot and, if necessary, dole out the harshest form of justice. And that is all you need to know.
The other interesting facet of Travis’ film is that it takes place in a single day. It’s quite literally a day-in-the-life picture, a snapshot of the daily hell that the Judges deal with, only on this particular day, things are just a bit more hellish. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) has been tasked with taking on a rookie partner, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), for one day to see if she can cut it. They investigate both a triple homicide as well as a new and deadly drug, Slo-Mo, in Peach Trees, a monstrous apartment building run by Mega-City’s most vicious criminal, Madelaine “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Heady). After the Judges arrest one of her lieutenants, Kay (Wood Harris — Avon Barksdale!), Ma-Ma locks down the entire 200 story building and begins a full-scale hunt for the heads of the two judges.
That’s it, in essence. From there on, it’s up to the two judges to use a combination of wits, cunning, and unflinching, brutal violence to survive and fight their way to the top and solve the puzzle. And it is thrilling. Karl Urban is pretty much perfect as Dredd. He drops his voice into a rough rasp, but doesn’t go so far as to make it ridiculous and incoherent (take not, Christopher Nolan). His constant grim sneer is a perfect image of the character, a hulking legend of a cop who shows no mercy and never, ever hesitates. Thirlby’s Anderson is a wide-eyed rookie who also has the benefit of being a powerful psychic, which creates new and fascinating scenarios and standoffs between the judges and the teeming, howling psychotics that are hunting them. Heady is perhaps the most enjoyable as the scarred, beautiful Ma-Ma. Instead of playing the character for a lunatic, Ma-Ma is ice cold, vicious, and completely without conscience. Her harshest punishment is to skin her foes alive and then dose them with Slo-Mo (a drug which makes it feel like time is moving at 1% its normal speed) — and then throw them off the 200th story balcony. Ma-Ma is not one with whom you should trifle.
The story is relatively simple, but the pace is unrelenting and breathless. It’s a pursuit film, although who is pursuing who sometimes gets deliciously murky. It’s also incredibly violent and gory, with a stunning body count and some innovative and terrible deaths. As an action film, it’s top notch, featuring two desperate protagonists trying to keep themselves alive for a few short hours in a gigantic prison filled with murderers and innocents. Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd is a force of nature, Batman with a badge but without the kid gloves. He’s a brilliant mind with a belt full of gadgetry (although the uniform has wisely been trimmed down and made more practical), but also a cold-blooded killer who doesn’t hesitate to dole out the harshest form of justice.
Dredd also features some startlingly amazing effects, both in the cinematography and the action choreography. Peach Trees is a monolithic pile of despair, a desolate warren of darkened hallways and desolation. Where the money is spent, effects-wise, is on the constant, pitched battles which feature gorgeously horrific splatters of blood and gore and the simply breathtaking depictions of Slo-Mo. The imagery is vivid and lush, giving even the most gruesome of punishments an aura of wonderment. In fact, I’ll even say this, something I never thought I’d say: see it in 3D. It’s absolutely worth the extra few bucks.
Dredd is a barrage on the sense, a fiercely relentless assault that somehow manages to still deliver solid characterization and dialogue. Yes, there are a few too-cheesy lines here and there, but sometimes that’s the price you pay with comic book movies. But occasional stumbling dialogue aside, Dredd is vicious, visceral fun, a mean, nasty ride that’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Yet when the blood sprays and the bullets fly and Dredd grimly and pitilessly wades through it all without pause, you won’t be able to stop the breathless, wicked smile on your face.
Oh, and for those who are curious: The helmet never comes off. Ever.