The latest among the current trend of Hollywood comic book adaptations (and reboots, too), Dredd is a new take on the franchise after Sylvester Stallone gave it a shot back in 1995. Karl Urban dons the mask this time, with Juno star Olivia Thirlby alongside him as a rookie with psychic abilities. The duo heads into a 200-story apartment complex to investigate a triple homicide and become trapped when the drug dealer who runs the joint (Lena Headey) calls on her thugs to kill them on sight. While this film definitely has some awesome moments, it unfortunately commits the cardinal sin of an action film: the pacing is far too slow.
Written by Sunshine and Never Let Me Go scribe Alex Garland, Dredd spends the first few minutes establishing the smoggy sprawl of Mega-City One, an 800 million person metropolis that stretches from Boston to Washington, DC. But it quickly forgets about worldbuilding when it condenses the story down into one location, rendering a lot of that setup fairly unnecessary. In this world, the Judges are given the power to both sentence and execute criminals as they apprehend them, making them the last bastions of justice in the dirty, overrun city. The massive Peach Trees apartments, home to 75,000 people, provides the film’s main location, and when Judge Dredd and Cassandra – a 90-pound girl whose impressive psychic powers far exceed her physical presence – get locked in and have a target on their backs, they get through it the only way they know how: by emptying bullet cartridges all over the complex and fighting their way to the top.
The action is surprisingly brutal, which will definitely please hardcore fans. Dredd isn’t afraid to melt faces, blow up heads, and smash throats in the most violent ways possible, which actually lends the film a bizarre charm. When Thirlby gets in the game with her psychic powers it’s not nearly as gory, but hers is an equally invasive skill; director Pete Travis takes us inside the mind in some visceral sequences that makes her inherently cheesy mutant power feel as grounded as it possibly could in context.
The main thrust of the plot revolves around the production and distribution of a drug called Slo-Mo, which, when taken, slows ones surroundings down to 10,000 frames per second. While the name of the drug is pretty silly (it’s like this year’s “unobtanium” from Avatar), the effect is actually really mesmerizing, and Travis makes sure that we savor every slowed down second. The violence takes on a different tone entirely when it’s in slow motion, especially backed by a terrific score that favors ethereal atmosphere during those sequences, but turns to a pulsating electronic beat during the real-time scenes, occasionally reminiscent of Drive.
The fittingly-named Urban is solid as the monotone Judge Dredd, doling out blasts with a jawline as cemented as the city he’s tasked with protecting. Hollywood has a remake of RoboCop coming soon, but they almost could have slapped that title on this movie and called it a day, because Urban never shows a hint of humanity outside of a few funny one-liners. He’s robotic and calculating, and we are never told a single thing about his backstory or given a reason to pull for him other than to see who he’ll kill next and just how merciless the death will be. Thirlby seems a bit unnatural in her role, but perhaps that’s a function of her rookie status and not a slight against the actress. When she gets into mind-f*ck mode, she’s at the top of her game, but it’s hard to believe she’s capable of lugging around a prisoner (Wood Harris from “The Wire”) when he easily outmatches her physically. Lena Headey is fine as the scar-faced drug dealer, playing it ruthless and cold, but again, Ma-Ma is more of an archetype than an actual character.
The biggest and most inexcusable problem with Dredd is the pacing; a lot of the action sequences feel too similar, which slows the film down tremendously about halfway through. By the time some corrupt Judges are introduced in the third act, it feels like we’ve seen this all before. Action film lovers will likely have that feeling if they’ve seen The Raid: Redemption, the Indonesian action flick that came out earlier this year that shares the “one location, evil warlord, few protagonists” storyline. But while The Raid essentially pummels you into submission with hand-to-hand combat, Dredd is content with keeping the violence at gun’s length, which takes away from the immediacy. The runtime is only 90 minutes, but it drags and slogs its way to a conclusion that feels small in comparison with the enormity of Mega-City One.
Dredd works pretty well as a genre piece, but there’s nothing more to latch onto than bullet casings here. It played pretty well for the Comic-Con crowd, earning a few cheers and sporadic bursts of applause during especially savage moments, but time will tell if regular audiences will be quite as bloodthirsty. Until next time…