When one thinks of comic book movies, the first images are probably of Spider-Man swinging across NYC, Iron Man flying around blowing up other robots, or the X-Men using their special powers together. These are all decidedly PG-13 affairs, and comic book movies have gotten the stigma of being labeled child’s play in some circles, the recent gritty Batman movies notwithstanding. But there are many comic properties out there for more mature audiences who crave hard-edged material. While there haven’t been many good movie versions of those out there, “Dredd” is here to turn the tides for comic fans that want to see the hard-hitting violence of its source translated onscreen.
After some background exposition establishing that most of the United States has become consumed by radiation and one gigantic city was built along the entire East Coast, we learn that crime had become so rampant that the police force was transformed into the “judges.” The judges are basically cops with the ability to determine crime sentences on the spot and dispense justice as they see fit. Judge Dredd is one of the more unforgiving men on the force, and on a routine murder investigation with his new rookie partner, Anderson, the two are trapped in a block (essentially a whole neighborhood in one skyscraper.) The block’s crime lord, Ma-Ma, doesn’t want the judges to find out about her new drug line, and orders them dead.
Background information aside, the actual plot setup is as simple an action movie premise as you can get, and has been used in others such as “Die Hard” and the recent “The Raid.” What sets “Dredd” apart from those two accomplished endeavors is its sense of style and the world that has been established. It’s a science fiction world for sure, and yet the sets and costumes are so well designed in ways that feels both futuristic and grittily believable at the same time. It’s an unforgiving environment, a place where the likes of Dredd are perhaps necessary to apply their brand of first-hand justice.
In those cases, the movie is violent and fun in the same way that old-school action movies were, when killing nameless henchmen in the most creatively bloody ways was the name of the game. “Dredd” is like those shoot-em-ups, but with a distinct modern twist. Ever since “The Matrix,” slow motion is tool that has been overused to the point of parody. “Dredd,” however, applies it in a way that feels fresh and organic, as the drug that Ma-Ma is pushing slows the brain down to 1% it’s normal speed. At times, the bad guys will take a hit of the stuff, only to unexpectedly have Dredd and Anderson’s bullets ripple through them and spill copious amounts of blood everyway in gloriously stylized fashion. It’s a neat twist on an otherwise formulaic trope, showing that, despite the numerous action scenes, the movie has a semblance of a brain behind it.
Writer Alex Garland slyly places the audiences sympathies with Anderson rather than the titular character, allowing us to see through the mindsets of both his machine-like efficiency and Anderson’s conscience. Because Anderson grew up near the eradiated zone, her mind has developed psychic abilities, making her a very useful asset for the judge force, allowing forms of interrogation and battle tactics not possible before. Through her, we see what this clearly fascistic system looks like to an outsider, adding subtle moments in between the bloodletting where the movie develops a sense of self-awareness to its ridiculous excesses.
The character of Judge Dredd does not have the same level of public awareness in the U.S. as he does in the U.K., where the comic originates from, and judging (no pun intended, I swear) by the low box-office returns, he won’t have it any time soon. This is unfortunate, as “Dredd” is an action movie that has been getting many unexpectedly positive reviews, and I will gladly join that battle cry. It’s very recommended for comic and action fans, and if you end up liking it too, spread the word around.