For Didn’t Get a Chance When They Were Around, I’m going to be reviewing films that…I didn’t get a chance to when they came out. Basically, the films of the last few years that came out before I started doing reviews. Pretty self-explanatory, mostly an excuse to revisit movies I like to think about or highlight ones I loved but never really got a chance to share.
How much does an adaptation missing the point actually hurt it as a film? Earnestly, if something doesn’t pull off a crucial part of its source material, does it necessarily mean it’s a lower quality film? I ask this because as much as I love Dredd, I also love Judge Dredd comics.
John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd is famous for its ultraviolence and its gritty, tough-guy sci-fi dystopia, but more famous for always underlining it with a pitch-black satirical sense of humor. It’s an anti-fascist work, a look at the logical extension of a world that prizes law and order over justice or freedom or the dignity of the downtrodden (*cough*). Intensely critical of its world, but never losing sight of the excitements and the thrills that could be contained therein. It’s the kind of satire unique to the British, smart and a stiff enough upper lip that the quiver hits all the harder.
Dredd is unfortunately not gifted with quite as much in the way of satire, or even humor in general. There’s something like an action movie deadpan from time to time, the idea of a completely humorless dude still from time to time being in a situation of levity. But the film exists largely more as an 80s-B-style action flick. No fat, no waste, just a small incident leading to another tough day in the life of our action hero.
So, yes, Dredd misses one key part of the mythos it’s based on. Largely humorless, it’s not a timely and possibly all-too-relevant satire that it might have been. However, let’s not let that damn the film. Even without that, Dredd is still a barrel of visceral, stylish fun, the kind of film that hits me in the lizard brain enough to own and watch once every couple months, but is smart enough about it to let me justify that love as a critic.
Dredd is essentially one bad day in the life of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a law enforcement officer in the future dystopia of Mega City One. Judges are responsible for every step of the law, from hunting the perp to execution. On this bad day, Dredd is responsible for training a new recruit, the psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). The day’s routine brings them to Peach Trees, a 200-story tower slum ruled by the vicious Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her gang, who have recently been caught with a few murders as well as in the distribution of a mind-altering drug known as Slo-Mo. Ma-Ma doesn’t take kindly to the Judges in her territory and locks down the building, trapping the Judges inside in a fight for their lives up 200 stories of hostile territory.
According to all reports, Dredd is the brainchild of writer (and officially director after this movie) Alex Garland, who wrote the script and may have had a larger hand in directing and editing than he was necessarily credited for. And for those who have been following Garland’s career, his fingerprints are all over Dredd. There’s a grittiness and a 5-minutes-in-the-future realism to his ideas, just like we would later see in Ex Machina. The script is tight and stylized, it feels like nothing else and just pops. I kinda love the way this movie talks. Even in the action movie lines, Garland knows how to stage them in a uniquely badass way. Check this drop of Dredd’s most famous line: .
The way he’s so no nonsense, but still finding that fun little bit of theatricality is a great character moment in addition to being awesome.
Of course, a lot of that is on the performances here. Besides how great this script is, the actors are almost pitch-perfectly cast. Lena Headey is a scary villain, commanding and legitimately vicious. Olivia Thirlby adds a lot of character to what could be an otherwise thin role.
But of course, Karl Urban as the titular Dredd is the film’s highlight. Committed to playing the role as the comic prescribed, never removing his helmet or showing anything but his lower jaw, Urban still pulls off an all-timer of an action hero, told pretty much entirely through clenched grimaces and body language. A legitimately badass dude.
Though, he’s helped by this movie’s penchant for visually fantastic action. Not just in the obvious bits, the slo-mo drug sequences that seek to make the ultraviolence almost legitimately beautiful. But the tightly controlled gunplay sequences that feel constantly escalating and more dangerous at every step, but never out of grasp for our heroes. Dredd is an interesting take on how you make a badass character feel in danger, but not feel out of his depth.
Most importantly, for all its straight-faced humorlessness, Dredd is actually a hell of a lot of fun. This is the movie I always want to point to when the lack of humor and the heavier themes are the excuse for why the DCEU Films are so joyless to watch. This is a film not making one-liners and jokes and is fairly dark and violent in tone, but dammit is it fun to watch. There’s a pulse-pounding excitement and lean, smooth movement through its story. Dredd is a great time no matter how you watch it, and that’s gotta be celebrated in a story that still manages to be as grim and dark as this one is.
If you’ve never been fortunate enough to give Dredd a watch, and you’re any kind of fan of sci-fi or action or things that kick ass, I recommend the hell out of it. It’s not the best possible version, but it’s still a great one and one I recommend in the fullest way.
P.S. You should also read Judge Dredd comics. I recommend Judge Death Lives, The Cursed Earth, Necropolis, and City of the Damned as storylines to start with.