Dredd (2012) 

Director:  Pete Travis

Writers:  Carlos Ezquerra, Alex Garland and John Wagner

Carl Urban: Judge Dredd

Olivia Thirlby:  Rookie Judge Anderson

Lena Headey:  Ma-Ma

Judge Dredd (1995)

Director:  Danny Cannon

Writers:  John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Michael De Luca, William Wisher Jr. and Steven E. de Souza

Sylvester Stallone:  Judge Dredd

Diane Lane:  Judge Hershey

Rob Schneider:  Herman Ferguson

Armande Assante:  Rico

On August 6, 2012, I posted a review of the remake of Total Recall, the upshot of which was that the original 1990 Arnold Schwarzegnegger was a better movie and by far a better treatment of the material.  However, Dredd is both a better movie and a better treatment of the material.  This is a point I make with a sort of conditional qualification: the original movie was much more like a comic book, right down to including Rob Schneider as stereotypical, loud and obnoxious, comic relief.  The remake, while also stereotypical, is a traditional action shoot fest.  This is not a must-see-on-the-big-screen movie, but for those who appreciate a solid action film, the DVD fee won’t be wasted.

The movie begins and ends in fine detective movie style with voiceovers by Urban setting the scene  and delivering a terse postscript in a future where America is a wasteland except for Megacity, which is actually a Megacity with 200 story urban development nightmares of housing units.  The basic plot is simple: two Judges are trapped in the 200 story nightmare and have to shoot their way through innumerable baddies to reach the penthouse/top floor where the ultimate baddie—Ma-Ma—the drug lord and crime boss lives and operates.

There are three actual stars in the film: Carl Urban as the unsmiling Judge Dredd, Olivia Thirlby as the rookie Judge Anderson and Urban’s gun, which not only shoots regular bullets, but armor piercing bullets, incendiary grenades, high explosive bullets and a variety of other surprises.  But one way this film is decidedly not cartoonish is that Urban and Anderson actually run out of ammunition—not for long–but they actually run out.

Anderson, you see, is a mutant psychic whose scores at the judge academy—what’s that, you’re not sure what this judge business is all about?  In the future, judges work the street as law enforcers and dispense instant justice on the street, including the death penalty when necessary.  Wouldn’t that be dandy?  In any case, Anderson’s academy scores were so low she would normally have washed out, but Dredd’s superiors think Anderson’s psychic abilities would come in handy, so she’s paired with Dredd to work a make-or-break shift.

Anderson is slight (Thirlby is only 5’4″) and blonde and Dredd is a physical contrast in every way.  Urban is at least 6’2″ tall, and dark in face and costume.  By that I mean Urban never removes his helmet/visor, so all the audience ever sees is the tip of Urban’s nose, his mouth and chin, and his chin begins the movie with a five o’clock shadow which appears to darken as the movie progresses.  His expressions range from a tight-lipped frown to a tight-lipped grimace, but oddly enough, it works.  The occasional nostril flare probably helps.  Urban does have screen presence and easily commands the viewer’s attention.

Thirlby’s Anderson is fresh-faced, but amazingly competent.  Every question about the law and tactics put to her by Dredd is answered immediately and with confidence, and she shoots baddies with abandon after a somewhat slow beginning.  If this is what an academy washout looks like, the top graduates are obviously superman/geniuses, come to think of it, rather like Dredd, whose reputation as a judge among judges is made obvious.

Lena Heady is a stereotypical, languid baddie, an ex-prostitute who took over her pimp’s business by—ahem—biting off his primary asset, and building a criminal empire around a new drug called “slo-mo,” which instantly induces tachypsychia, where users experience time in extreme slow motion.  Pete Travis, the director, uses this to good effect without overdoing it.  Heady seems half-drugged and heavy-lidded and doesn’t produce any real menace.  It’s hard to see how real male sociopaths and psychopaths would defer to her, but it’s not terribly hard to just sit back and accept the premise.

Urban’s Dredd is substantially different from Stallone’s.  In the original, Dredd was so single-minded as to be essentially an automaton.  Everything was black and white, and part of the plot line involved teaching Dredd a bit of humility, balance and even a small sense of humor.  Urban’s Dredd is a human being, and an intelligent and highly capable cop, capable of mercy and compassion.  He’s not the type of cop whose only tactic is running through brick walls, and actually defers to Anderson when it’s obvious that will further the mission.  When Stallone barked “I yam duh law!” in a rather Popeye-ish manner, he was expressing Dredd’s rigidity and flawed character.  When Urban utters the same line, it not only fits his character, but the  situation, and nicely foreshadows Ma-Ma’s demise.  Urban’s Dredd is the kind of cop you want on the street; he can tell the good guys from the bad guys.  Stallone’s Dredd is not the kind of cop you want to meet; he might give you ten years in prison for looking at him funny.

The other plot elements are predictable: Anderson saves Dredd’s life and Dredd saves Anderson’s life.  There are crooked cops (as in the original) and the expenditure of prodigious quantities of ammunition.  Dredd is wounded, but treats his own gunshot wound, rises above it, calls the baddie’s bluff and saves the day.  Anderson is wounded, Dredd treats her gunshot wound and she rises above it, Megacity is still a hell-hole, and…you get the picture.

Oh yes: Anderson passes her evaluation; it’s Dredd’s call.  Dredd’s superiors were right: being able to read minds is indeed a handy skill for a cop.

Dredd will not be in the running for an Academy Award (it doesn’t play politics and there’s no Republican in the White House to vilify anyway) and will surely not be among the all-time money-makers, but it is a solid and entertaining action picture, and its depiction of solid, rational values and the application of sure and fair justice—as well as the overcoming of corruption—is an easy and welcome sell in the age of Obama.