Genre: Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
Director: Pete Travis
Screenwriters: John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
I admire Dredd’s directness. Here’s a movie that doesn’t bother with pleasantries, launching into and out of its plot – such as it is – with a minimum of fuss and in 98 efficient minutes. There are no twists; there are no turns; the subtext is straightforward and barely under the surface. If you’re after a reasonably well-mounted action film with a bit of the old ultraviolence and absolutely no pretensions to anything else, Dredd’s your destination.
Yet there were reasons to expect more. Indeed, after about 15 minutes, I was as excited as I’ve been at the movies this year. What Dredd feints at, before retreating to action flick convention, is the first real successor to Alex Proyas’ Dark City: a film totally immersed in a singular, majestic science-fiction milieu, exploring its frightening details while propelling forward a utilitarian but enthralling story.
The world of Dredd is familiar to comic-book fans or those who saw the miserable 1995 Stallone adaptation: a walled-in city, overrun by drugs and gangs, stands in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Vainly trying to hold back the tide of criminality is a force of armored lawmen authorized to act as judges and executioners. The film throws us in with the incorruptible Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), who is tasked with the “assessment” of a barely-qualified rookie (Olivia Thirlby) being promoted because of her exceptional psychic ability. Dredd and Rookie respond to the report of a triple homicide at a highrise slum called Peachtrees, which is ruled by a homicidal gang leader named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Ma-Ma and her henchmen are dealing a drug called Slo-Mo, which has the property of giving its imbiber the sensation that time is moving at one fiftieth of its actual pace.
Until shortly after Dredd and his charge arrive at Peachtrees, the film is borderline extraordinary, vividly sketching its dystopia with a minimum of spoken exposition. Pete Travis, whose Vantage Point was a nifty little Rashomon-esque gag, starts to build an insinuating visual rhythm, his camera coolly floating through a convincing alternate world filled with vagrants, criminals, skater punks, and ordinary citizens trying not to get shot or shanked. He lingers on some lovely impressionistic touches: the intoxicating slo-mo brought on by Slo-Mo; the bursts of bloody violence deliberately rendered to look like frames of a comic book. Had Dredd spent its entire running time roaming this new universe, I would have been over the moon.
Instead, Dredd and Rookie – and by extension the film – get stuck in the Peachtrees highrise and spend over an hour trying to blast their way out while being hunted by Ma-Ma. This is fine as far as it goes. Ma-Ma is kind of a great villain, with Lena Headey pulling off the weird feat of giving a performance that’s both impassive and tremendously hammy. The action is coherent and carefully staged. But the movie also becomes a generic (if uncommonly violent) shoot-‘em-up, losing the fascination of its opening scenes. By the end, the dystopia Dredd had begun to build is almost forgotten.
It remains worthwhile for genre fans. Alex Garland’s screenplay has a certain spare elegance. The wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am abruptness of the proceedings is certainly bracing. I was reminded, oddly, of Jurassic Park III, a Hollywood franchise entry that was almost radical in its no-nonsense efficiency. But after Dredd’s spectacular opening, the experience of the rest of the film is deflating. That deceptive flash of ambition turns out to be its worst enemy.
— Eugene Novikov