Dredd 2012: Dredd done right
Dredd 2012 is a new film – the second film made about the iconic comic character Judge Dredd. It stars Karl Urban in the title role, with Olivia Thirlby as trainee Judge Anderson (also a character from the Dredd comics) and Lena Headley (of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles fame) as the villain.
Before getting to the movie itself, let me lead in with a few words about first the Judge Dredd comics then the first attempt at making it a movie – the 1995 big budget film starring Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider.
Judge Dredd was conceived as a semi-futuristic lawman that took the character “Dirty Harry” to its logical extreme. A whole comic book series (2000 AD) arose around this with a full dystopian world populated with characters both good and bad. It is considered a seminal comic series and indeed the Dredd universe and character and the Judge system have even been invoked in discussions of real world questions about governance and the administration of justice.
The 1995 film
In 1995 a big budget film based on Judge Dredd was made. It starred Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider. I did a more detailed review of that film here:
Basically, while the 1995 film did okay with its visuals it got the characters wrong. Stallone hideously overacting the Dredd role didn’t help either. Plus, his Dredd did not come across at all like the logical endpoint of Dirty Harry – he was just a typical Stallone overblown action hero role. And unfortunately that horrid performance colored the thinking of those who had not read the comics on the whole Dredd character and universe.
The 2012 film
With the background in place, let’s look at this new Dredd film.
The first thing to note is that the budget here was smaller. However it is still VERY effective visually. The city in this film has a properly grungy look and the megablock towers are very effectively realized. The action choreography is first rate and almost poetic at times. This film looks a lot more expensive than it really was.
Second, these characters are done right. Dredd in this film is gruff, taciturn and is indeed the logical endpoint of the character concepts underlying Dirty Harry. Anderson is a mutant psychic trainee judge and again her character is true to the comics. The villain (Lena Headley) is a vicious druglord named MaMa – while this is not a character from the comics the STYLE and TONE of the character are.
Not only are the characters written very well, the performances are outstanding.
Karl Urban does it again – in Star Trek 09 he nailed Doctor McCoy so precisely it seemed like he was channeling DeForrest Kelley. Here he gives a similarly outstanding performance – he IS Dredd. What makes it all the more impressive is he conveys this without our ever being able to see his eyes or upper face – this Dredd keeps his helmet on like he is supposed to.
Olivia Thirlby is new to me as an actress. I gather she was in Juno but I never saw that film. All I can say here is that she turns in an effective performance as the rookie judge. She has psionic powers (just like in the comics) and uses them one time to horrific effect. Part of the film is her character does have an arc – she changes a good deal from her “day on the street” with Dredd.
Lena Headley is great as the villain – the sadistic druglord MaMa. A frequent issue in these types of hero-villain films is that the villain is not a foe worthy of the hero. That is not the case here. MaMa is vicious and sadistic but also intelligent. She is even given a backstory that elicits a little bit of sympathy over her past and how it may have had a role in turning her into a monster.
With strong characters performed well, the next question is: does it work? Well, I say yes it does. This film is what is known as a “small set story”. It basically all takes place in one building and really there are only three main plotlines and they are all related. This gives the film focus. And that keeps the story moving and the tension present. All in all it is well directed. As the story was written by Alex Garland (who also wrote 28 Days Later) I was not surprised it was well structured.
All in all, I liked this new Dredd film. I hope you do as well.