As with its main character, Dredd moves at a breakneck pace. For 95 minutes, we bound from one bloody, explosive action scene to the next, until the kinetic force of the film almost grows exhausting. Amazingly, Dredd manages to sneak in meaningful exposition and ambitious points about the dangers of instant judgment. The result is a startling success that should only grow in esteem as the years pass.
Loosely adapted from John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s long-running comic strip, Dredd functions as a cousin to Sly Stallone’s adaptation from the 90s. That version leaned hard into smirky humor and cheese-puff one-liners. These comedy shenanigans might’ve been true to the comics, but they also alienated casuals from buying into the franchise. After all, Stallone had already shot his pop culture wad with Demolition Man, the cheeky sci-fi bonanza from 1993. That film found a decent audience, but it also didn’t leave anybody clamoring for more. So when Judge Dredd tried to blend nouveau-fascist satire with brawny action scenes, moviegoers responded with a pronounced shrug.
Here then, is another swing at Dredd. This version is leaner, meaner, and smarter. Much of the humor been drained from the film, leaving an edgier, gloomier experience in its place. Anyone looking for daffy jokes should probably head back to those 90s Stallone flicks. This Dredd is all killer, no filler.
That means the story gets crankin’ right away. Dredd takes place a few decades in the future, where overpopulation has forced hundreds of millions into sprawling mega-cities. Hopelessness and lawlessness intermingle into one grimy, soot-stained existence. The only source of justice lies with the Street Judges, who roam the cities and serve as judge, jury, and–if need be–executioner.
No judge is more lethal than Dredd (Karl Urban). Smart, savvy, and almost completely dispassionate, Dredd has built a reputation with even the worst criminals. He balks when the department assigns him a new partner. Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thrilby) is green, anxious, and fresh off a spate of subpar test scores at the academy. Still, she has unique and powerful gift: Anderson is a psychic, with the ability to read and influence the minds of others. This makes her the perfect counterpoint for the aloof, ruthless Dredd. As such, he reluctantly welcomes her aboard.
It’s not long before the judges get called to multiple homicides in one of the city’s high rises. These massive skyscrapers function as self-contained communities, and crime runs rampant within them. Dredd and Anderson arrive to find several bodies splattered in the central courtyard. Of course, this can’t be a simple case. As they question suspects, the judges unearth an ugly, sweeping conspiracy involving a new mind-altering narcotic.
This leads them to Ma (Lena Headey). She’s a potent crime lord, with scars and a permanent scowl running across her sour face. She fights back against the judges by locking down the building. She then takes to the PA, and (in a scene evoking Walter Hill’s The Warriors) puts her thugs to work: Nobody stops until both judges are dead. From this point on, Dredd and Anderson must fight their way out the building, Die Hard-style.
That means the action in Dredd is non-stop. Still, the filmmakers find subtle ways to weave exposition into this frenetic story. Through brief vignettes, we learn about the personalities of Dredd, Anderson, and Ma. Even better, we learn vital details about the gnarly world around them, and how humanity arrived at such an ugly junction. The saying goes that great writers show, and bad writers tell. If that’s the case, the writing in Dredd is uncommonly strong.
The same goes for the performances. Urban supplies a strong emotional center, despite only showing his chin and growling snarl. We never doubt Dredd’s humanity and honor, even when it’s buried beneath a facade of icy efficiency. Thirlby is also a revelation, playing the film’s most vulnerable and relatable character. Heady’s casting as a psychotic bitch-queen is a bit on-the-nose, but she still makes it work. Dominhall Gleeson is also a strong presence, as Ma’s shellshocked tech guru. An edgy, propulsive film like this is especially reliant on performances to give it dramatic heft, and these actors more than deliver.
All this adds up to a relentlessly gripping experience. Some viewers may find the film’s sheer carnage off-putting, but the violence actually serves the story well. Somehow, Dredd slipped under the radar in 2012. (Maybe audiences were still hesitant after Stallone’s campy misfire?) Whatever the reason, it’s time to give this version a look. This is thought-provoking sci-fi at its very best.
95 min. R. Netflix.