"Dredd" Makes Best Of Second Chance

As star Karl Urban noted in this critic’s post-screening Q & A, “Dredd” is something of an independent feature. It was shot exclusively in South Africa on a modest budget and it’s an attempt to relaunch a franchise that was dead on arrival with Sylvester Stallone’s poorly received 1995 film. This new incarnation of “Dredd” has no business working as well as it does, but its cinematography and astonishing special effects (not just in relation to its budget) carry it to heights unseen by many high-financed comic book films – the lowly “Ghost Rider” and pathetic “Fantastic Four” come to mind. Karl Urban does his best to sell the titular Judge as the ultimate action hero, but it’s the visuals that steal the show and make “Dredd” a lock to be a late-night TV staple for years to come.

Urban stars as Judge Dredd, one of the few lawmakers (he literally makes the law as judge, jury, and executioner) in Mega City One, a sprawling, futuristic city of tens of millions. Dredd notes early on that the Judges can only respond to 6% of the calls they receive, suggesting a losing effort. But Dredd doesn’t seem to be much of a numbers guy. His only purpose in life is to defend right and punish wrong as he sees fit, with very little middle ground. Urban growls his lines with an authoritative sneer, highlighting the character’s “black and white” worldview. The film, however, is anything but black and white.

Dredd is called to a 200-story housing unit, the epicenter of drug trafficking in Mega City One – particularly the fictional drug “Slo-Mo.” The drug is depicted onscreen as a purveyor of time deceleration and psychedelic explosions of color and is peddled by the vicious Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her heavily armed gang. Dredd happens to be training a would-be Judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), when he gets the call. Anderson doesn’t have the demeanor or commitment to be a Judge, but her psychic abilities have kept her in the program. This mission is her final audition.

When the building goes into lockdown, Dredd and Anderson are forced to fight their way to the top, taking out hordes of thugs along the way – often by way of shocking brutality. During the post-film discussion, Urban conceded that the limited scope of the film is budget-related, but the claustrophobic nature of the project actually adds to the tension. The aforementioned violence is startling, but the way it’s shot is unique and often dreamlike, juxtaposing the film’s rather grimy sensibilities with hallucinogenic asides that underscore action beats. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s work is nothing short of astonishing and “Dredd” is the best argument for 3D to date. Instead of the lazy passiveness we’ve come to expect from 3D, the film provides a very active viewing experience. Mantle does some really interesting things with foreground and background exposure and the colors are stunning. Additionally, the special effects are the best I’ve seen in years – it’s obvious that the filmmakers stayed within their means and made it great, rather than overshooting their target with the kind of embarrassing CGI that plagues most modern action films.

Alex Garland’s screenplay is too brittle, but the title character has never enjoyed much depth on the page, so there’s no reason to overcook things onscreen. Headey gives a terrifically nasty performance while Thirlby looks uncomfortable at times. To her credit, Anderson is drawn awkwardly and without any attribute but the one Dredd lacks – compassion. Urban gives Dredd the necessary gravitas without going overboard, and his ability to emote with little more than his mouth (his face is concealed by a helmet for the entirety of the film) is impressive. In the end, the film is too slight to leave an enormous impression, but I’m definitely interested to see Urban and company expand this cinematic universe. Action junkies should delight in “Dredd,” as should fans of the comic. It might not be the film they’ve waited for, but it’s a major step in the right direction. Now we can only hope that the box office justifies another go-round.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 21, 2012
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Pete Travis
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content)