As summer turns to fall, my cinematic tastes change. I’m not talking about the changes that I want to see spinning in my Blu-ray player, but rather what I want to see at the theater. In the summer, I prefer my action movies sprinkled with a huge dose of fun; a serious action movie such as Dark Knight Rises can still do the trick, but I’m more inclined to want to see something like Avengers when it’s hot outside.
When the summer’s over and the autumn starts asserting its influence with the return of the school year and a dip in temperature, I start wanting action movies that are a bit more pure, a bit more hard, a bit more violent.
Pete Travis’ R-rated adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic is a hard, serious, pure action movie, and I love every second of it. Dredd teases, at times, that it’s going to go down the predictable road and turn soft, but it never relents in its uncompromising vision of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a lawman in the dystopian Mega-City One, who does his job and sees his mission through to the end.
Dredd does a fantastic job of making Mega-City One feel real. Sometimes in these post-apocalyptic tales, films rely too much on just dressing up folks like extras from Mad Max, Escape from New York, and Doomsday, but Dredd largely eschews this aesthetic, and favors a more realistic approach to dressing up the baddies inside Mega-City. The result is a world that feels much more possible; instead of giving us a world that looks dramatically altered from our own, Mega-City looks disturbingly possible.
There are a few costumed crazies running around, but Dredd favors the contemporary clothed Ma-Ma gang, led by Madelaine Madrigal (Lena Headey), a former prostitute who viciously climbed the criminal ladder. She sits at the top of a 200-story low-income housing block, and when the camera catches sights inside the building of the infirmary and theater, I can see how this low income housing was once something better, something the people of the tower could have felt at home in. Dredd succeeds in these areas because it doesn’t oversell anything.
It helps the film that it doesn’t try to artificially amp up the tension. There’s no scene where Dredd’s captain says, “The Ma-Ma gang is at it again, Dredd! This is the break we’ve been waiting for!"
Instead, Dredd is professionally growling the evaluation rules to rookie trainee Anderson, letting her know that the Judges can only respond to a tiny percentage of all reported crimes in Mega-City One and he tests her on which of a set of crimes they should respond. It’s her choice to head to Ma-Ma's house.
When they arrive at the massive structure, there’s no, "Wait, rookie, this is Ma-Ma’s ground." There’s literally so much crime in Mega-City One that a drug lord can take over an entire 200-story building and there are Judges who are not acutely aware of the massive problems in this tower.
I am not going to make the case that Dredd is a super-intelligent movie, but I am going to argue that there is clearly a lot of thought into all aspects of the film’s production. This is a very well made movie. Critics are often far too willing to dismiss a movie like this as a "dumb action flick" because they’re so blinded by the action that the movie fronts that they miss or don’t care about the background details, but time and again, the small decisions that are made by the production crew result in a better film.
The idea that everything that happens here unfolds organically instead of being accompanied by all sorts of artificial fanfare gives the film a sharper edge. Perhaps it sounds counter-intuitive that to make a story feel bigger you need to undersell it, but that’s often the case.
In other words, to make us feel that a story is important, show us that it is instead of simply telling us.
Dredd does that through narrative and aesthetic "little" decisions, so when a big decision is made, such as Ma-Ma dropping the Towers’ blast doors, it rings louder. She gets on the building’s PA system and announces that there’s two Judges in the building and she wants them dead.
Karl Urban is fantastic as Judge Dredd, this growling, by-the-book, uncompromising lawman who never takes off his helmet. He’s not robotic, but he is in control of himself. After Ma-Ma’s announcement, he doesn’t panic. He acknowledges the difficulty of their situation, telling Anderson they need to get out of the open.
The moment the film won me over was after Ma-Ma and her goons use massive gatling guns to eviscerate an entire section of one floor of housing. People are slaughtered left and right, indiscriminately killed in Ma-Ma’s attempt to kill Dredd and Anderson.
When the guns have stopped firing and Ma-Ma’s thugs are searching the ruins and casualties for the two Judges, the camera sticks with Ma-Ma as we hear new gunfire, and then across the way, we see the menacing figure of Dredd emerge from the smoke and unceremoniously toss Ma-Ma’s first lieutenant over the ledge, and then simply walks back into the smoke.
There’s no quip from Dredd, no verbal threat. Just the sense that Dredd is doing his job and that he doesn’t need his mouth to make his point. When he does use his voice later, however, after he gets control of the Towers’ PA system, it’s to briefly remind everyone that, “Ma-Ma isn’t the law." Simple, straightforward, and spoken from a position of strength only allowed someone when they know they are in the right.
Dredd keeps this same tone through the entire film, and the movie doesn’t attempt to give him a sense of humor or a new sense of humanity.
I can’t say how thankful I am for those decisions.
Dredd teases us, though, with the possibility we might have to watch these stock character arcs play out. Our main Judge gets a cute rookie sidekick, after all, who isn’t just a rookie, isn’t just a woman, isn’t just cute, but also has psychic abilities, meaning she’ll be able to tell us how everyone feels. It’s an obvious set-up, right? The emotional rookie will touch the heart of the old grouch, and by the end of the film he’ll compromise the law and make the wrong legal decision in order to make the right emotional decision.
Well, it doesn’t happen.
Dredd isn’t a robot. We see him compromise the absolute letter of the law as he acknowledges that sometimes you have to prioritize one crime over another. By the strictest letter of the law, Anderson fails her evaluation the moment she loses her gun, but Dredd still lets her pass. The film doesn’t present this as a huge moment of softening, however. Before he can render his judgment on her performance, Anderson angrily asserts her own agency in the matter, telling Dredd she knows she’s failed and that she knows she’s going to do something with her life other than be a Judge. When the day has been won, she walks off alone and isn’t even present when Dredd tells the Chief Judge that she passed the evaluation.
Olivia Thirlby delivers one of those quietly great performances that no awards committee will ever recognize, but one that helps to make this a much better film. (Have I mentioned lately how much I hate awards?) When I saw her sitting in the Hall of Justice, looking all cutesy and mousey, I was worried that we were going to get stuck with a character in this movie that didn’t belong in this movie, that she’d be the character we’d "identify" with and whose constant screaming was supposed to tell us how serious everything was.
When she gets a little too close to psychically reading beneath Dredd’s surface, I was groaning that we were going to find out he saw his puppy dog get murdered or something to make him more sympathetic.
Blessedly, the filmmakers continually frustrate those expectations.
Anderson is certainly nervous, but she’s also dead set on proving herself. When she has one bad guy injured and bleeding before her, she hesitates on killing him, but when Dredd reminds her what this man’s sentence is, she pulls the trigger and kills him. Later, they end up in the apartment of this man’s wife, but there’s no overblown emotional reaction. Instead of this moment causing Anderson to break, it hardens her and the film never comes back to it.
Dredd, Ma-Ma, and Anderson are all characters are adults who do their jobs.
The conception of the Anderson character also shows how smartly the movie is assembled. One of the complaints about the Sylvester Stallone-starring Judge Dredd is the inclusion of the Rob Schneider goofball character, but the decisions to include Schneider’s character and Anderson are the same: they’re here to provide a balance to Dredd’s grimness.
Where that earlier film went over-the-top on the silly side, this current film is subtle in creating Dredd’s antithesis. Anderson has a softness to her, accentuated by Thirlby’s soft features. Big things reinforce the contrast between them, such as Anderson not wearing a helmet, but all the little things help, too, such as Anderson’s gender, height, and unkempt blonde hair.
There is some humor in the film, but it’s squeezed out of Dredd acting in character, rather than having him work against his character. They’re not hilarious moments, but when he tosses Ma-Ma’s first lieutenant over the railing, I laughed. It’s situationally funny, not a display of Dredd having a finely honed sense of humor.
I have not read much of the Judge Dredd comic, so I can’t tell you that Dredd is true to the character, but I can tell you that I went to this movie wanting to see a serious, violent, action movie, and that’s what this film delivers.
Uncompromising is the word I keep coming back to, as I never feel the filmmakers altered what their movie wants to be to meet some set of industry expectations for how a superhero/action movie should behave.
In that uncompromising vein, I love Dredd not just for what it is, but what it represents.
I can’t wait to see it again.