Judge Dredd is a supercop from the future who is a judge, jury, and executioner with a computer controlled hand-cannon that dispenses justice instantaneously to bad people. If that sounds like a product of the 70s vigilante / extreme cop fantasy (see DIRTY HARRY, DEATHWISH, etc.), it is: Dredd was of course adapted from a comic that started in 1976. It also sounds like a film that might have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Allegedly, there nearly was such a film, but the role went to Stallone in a 1995 adaptation that was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.
But erase all those bad memories. DREDD 3D is a new adaptation from the source material. It feels true to the character (I read the comics way back in the 80s), yet freshened up for this decade. It is a pretty rare gem --- a balls-out action spectacle, a drug tip movie, and a hard-R comic book adaptation. And it blew the pants off the Midnight Madness crowd on the first night of the Toronto Film Festival.
Karl Urban stars as Judge Dredd, a kind of proto-ROBOCOP. He always wears a helmet and his Judge outfit, he’s ever-logical, brutal but fair, and he has no time for silly things like girls. Hell no, he’s too busy blasting the heads off of punks with extreme firepower.
But what happens when he has to take on a new recruit, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who’s a failure at her Judge’s exams, refuses to wear a helmet, and seems a little too compassionate to be a Judge? Conflict! In her defense, she’s also a foxy psychic. When she touches you, she can see inside your brain.
The duo head to investigate a multiple homicide at the Peach Trees, a 200-story slum tower, run by drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). But before long they are trapped inside with thousands of residents incited to kill them. Since they can’t escape, they are forced to fight their way all the way up to the “boss level.” If it sounds exactly like THE RAID, it is, although DREDD was written first, and by Alex Garland of 28 DAYS LATER fame.
Adding a little spice, and visual flair, to the proceedings is a drug called slo-mo. Take it and you experience reality at about a thousandth of its normal speed. This gives us a chance to savor the hyper-violence in all its beautiful, time-resolved glory. It is like MATRIX bullet-time++, and it provides some stunning cinematography, a trippy vibe, and some inventive action beats. Even wanted to see a bullet tear through someone’s head in slow motion? See the waves of impact on someone’s body after a good smashing? See the effects of an encounter with the ground after a 200 story fall? Oh yes, slo-mo delivers! After the screening, director Pete Travis mentioned that he picked Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for his ability to shoot those sequences, and specifically his work on ANTICHRIST. I love that we live in an era when we can bring the full force of millions of CPU hours of computational power, Oscar-winning brainpower, and dozens of CG artists to get exactly the right kind of slow motion head explosion.
A beautiful orgy of violence is really the selling point for DREDD. The plot is pretty simple. The acting is fine, but Karl Urban does the whole thing in the Bale Batman voice, and never takes his hat off. I hadn’t seen Olivia Thirlby since she was practically a kid in JUNO, but she was certainly up to the task. Lena Headey chews the scenery as deliciously as she does in GAME OF THRONES. And it is fun to see a half-crazed woman as the villain. Helena Bonham Carter must have been booked up.
I have no idea how a film like DREDD 3D got made. While movie geeks might be aware of it because of the positive word of mouth, and comic fans have been reading the character for years, the average moviegoer just thinks of that Sylvester Stallone stinkbomb. And being hard-R, it isn’t even made for the teen set. There is a long tradition of violent R-rated action movies, but often they come from Asia, and were made on a tiny budget. While DREDD was shot in South Africa, it has name actors, amazing effects, and looks like it cost a ton, even if it didn’t.
I don’t want to think about it too deeply, I’m just glad that a movie like DREDD can get made. It is a perfect midnight film.