Who doesn’t think back with a nostalgic grin at their first time watching the great 80’s/90’s action flicks such as First Blood, Rocky, Predator or Face/Off? Unfortunately, one movie of that era we’d love to forget is, arguably, Sylvester Stallone’s worst cinematic offering, 1995’s Judge Dredd. The film effortlessly took a gritty comic strip and downgraded it into a cringe-worthy testosterone-wasting mess that isn’t even so bad it’s good. I’m sure most people who heard about this reboot with Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy from 2009’s Star Trek) taking on the role of the world’s meanest Judge were very enthusiastic. Judge Dredd as a character always struck me as about as capable of getting a good movie adaptation as the Phantom. He’s just too deadpan – a Punisher knockoff with none of the classic psychosis.
Boy, did Dredd surprise me. Instead of a slightly-less-horrible reboot of a bad movie, I got a fantastically-directed action extravaganza with enough style to go with the exploding heads to make it all exhilarating to experience. It takes the most iconic bits of those 80’s action flicks we remember so fondly and revamps them into a video-game-like shoot-’em-up definitely reminiscent of last year’s The Raid: Redemption. Except with more slow-motion kills and less faster-than-the-mind’s-eye martial arts.
In the futuristic metropolis of Mega City One, society is a giant wasteland of crime and scum. Judges – men and women who take the role as police officer, judge, jury and executioner – have replaced the regular justice system. They go out, find criminals and quickly dispatched them with none of the moral hassle or paperwork. The most feared Judge is a gruff, enigmatic man named Dredd (Karl Urban), who we never see out of costume. He hunts down the criminals, warns them to comply with jail time and for those who refuse (which is most), he enacts his justice. Our story begins when a drug called “Slo-Mo” (which slows down your perception of time down to 1% of normal speed) appears on the streets. Dredd and promising rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) go after the gang responsible – a gang who happens to be blockaded within a 200-story tower and led by one of the most vicious drug lords of the city, Ma-Ma (Lena Headly). Ultimately trapped within the tower along with countless criminals who want them dead, Dredd and Anderson must go on a deadly trek up the 200 stories to where Ma-Ma waits for them with her minions.
Here, while Judge Dredd never quite surpasses the Punisher as a crime-killing machine, he ends up channeling his own unique brand of badassery that’s a lot of fun to watch. This isn’t a movie where we’re sitting there saying: “Geez, this is painful to watch.” It helps that Karl Urban is far more cinematically photogenic than Stallone’s Dredd and manages to cough up Batman growl-worthy lines like “I am the law” or “It’s judgment time” without ever appearing laughable. He delivers his lines and stands in his role with such serious certainty that we can’t help but take him seriously. Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headly are great in their prospective roles, although neither are as memorable as Urban.
The level of absurdity within the action scenes is spellbinding and wholly entertaining. Dredd is truly a non-stop action flick, but one where we don’t need to care about the characters or have picture-perfect dialogue to enjoy. It helps that the grittiness of the character overshadows the cheese. It’s miles ahead of cheap action films like Death Race and even Punisher: War Zone in terms of quality and sheer entertainment value.
It would have been so easy for this to have been bad if it wasn’t for the director’s hard work. Director Pete Travis has a particular vision of Dredd, one untarnished by Stallone or the 90’s. He sees a driven soldier without moral scruples or moments of hesitation. He is the ultimate fighter in that he’s little more than a fully-sentient police machine. Yet even in his uncompromising nature, we have glimpses of a haunted man behind that costume. He’s definitely not as inherently interesting as Batman or Punisher, but he’s serviceable and interesting enough to be worth watching for two hours. I dig the character, something I never thought I’d say. I’d like to see more of him. I did see it in 3D. It was effective but not critical or particularly memorable for the experience. It’s no Piranha or Avatar. Outside of seeing bullets pass through heads in slow motion, not a big deal.
If you enjoy epic action movies like Expendables 2 or grindhouse movies like Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun, I think it’s very safe to say you’ll enjoy the hell out of this. I know I did, and I’d love to see a sequel down the line with as much – if not more – manic energy and devotion to a character that never should have worked in a world full of Batman and Punisher fans. It’s one of the best-directed and best-acted action flicks in the last decade. You won’t find a movie like this that’s this sure of itself. As with most things in life, confidence is key.
In Theaters: September 21, 2012
Runtime: 96 min
Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content)
Director: Pete Travis
Cast: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, and Lena Headey
Genre: Action/Adventure, Adaptation, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Official Site: http://dreddthemovie.com/