Saturday, September 22, 2012
What do you do when bringing a niche character like Judge Dredd to the screen, one whose only previous appearance on film in 1995 resulted in a thudding flop? Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and writer Alex Garland double down with the new Dredd, which is as blunt and brutal an effort as has ever been made for a character with such a long pedigree. While Travis honors the source material by never revealing the entire face of Dredd (Karl Urban, who would win an Oscar if "mouth acting" was a category), the effect of keeping him masked is to remove consideration of the man and the way his work affects him. Dredd as an efficient automaton of justice may work nicely in the comics, but on film the appealing Urban (McCoy in the last Star Trek) is turned into an undramatic cipher. Dredd and his psychic rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are investigating a murder in Peach Trees, one of the 200-story apartments that house the citizens of the enormous and chaotic Mega City One. The investigation puts the Judges in the sights of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a drug dealer who's the sole purveyor of a narcotic called Slo-Mo that affects the brain's perception of time. When Ma-Ma seals Dredd and Anderson inside of Peach Trees the movie turns into a hunting expedition.
Dredd is about as subtle as throwing someone off a balcony, which is Ma-Ma's preferred method of disposing of inconvenient people. There are a few visual flourishes when characters are under the influence of Slo-Mo (I liked a shot of Headey entranced by slow-moving beads of water), but what we have here is a movie about people blasting away at each other and Travis isn't shy about letting you know when someone gets shot in the head. Olivia Thirlby as Anderson is assigned what little rhetoric there is on the subject of making a difference, an idea which Dredd laughs off. Thirlby underplays her characters steely moments well enough, but I wanted a little more of Wood Harris as a dealer who becomes a prisoner of the Judges. The casual menace Harris brings to his scenes is the best attempt Dredd makes to individualize the bleak future the movie envisions, yet as good as Harris is his character is only a detour on the road to an ending that you don't have to be psychic to see coming. Dredd is for hard-core fans of the source material only, anyone who doesn't come in with some knowledge of the character won't have enough to hold on to. I wonder if Karl Urban is signed for a sequel; it may not matter because Dredd doesn't have a case.