Dredd aims low, gets the job done

Despite spending more than two decades of my life reading comic books, I don’t know much about Judge Dredd. I know he’s an icon, and many great British writers and artists have worked on his books, but they’ve had limited availability in North America. I read a Batmand-Dredd teamup book once, but that’s about it.

I’m not sure, after watching Dredd, if I know anything more. This is a film that seems largely removed from the source material: Outside of the concept of a paramilitary police force and a post-apocalyptic future, there’s not a lot here that say “Dredd!” beyond some occasional scenery and a few sci-fi props. This story could translate to present-day reality without losing much.

(Disclaimer: Due to the delayed start time – the film didn’t get rolling until after 1am – I’d lost a fair amount of enthusiasm by the time I got into the theatre. That may have made this a grumpier review than I’d have liked.)

Dredd gets down to business quickly. We’re introduced to Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, whose gravelly voice and monotone delivery makes Christian Bale sound like Tiny Tim) and his ruthless pursuit of justice; the vicious gangs that run the city and the new drug they’re dealing; and the rookie psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, whose brightness & obvious attractiveness stand out in a film so covered with grime) that Dredd will be evaluating.

Dredd and his trainee are quickly dispatched to Peach Tree, a monolithic residential tower where drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) has made a show of disposing of some dealers who encroached on her territory. When Dredd and Anderson arrest one of Ma-Ma’s senior henchmen with the intent of interrogating him, Ma-Ma locks down the building and sets her criminal army on them.

From here, Dredd kicks into a standard action movie template. There are obvious similarities to The Raid, which opened Midnight Madness last year, but Die Hard is an equally valid touchpoint, particularly given the lack of martial arts in Dredd. Dredd and Anderson alternate running, hiding, and shooting. The action sequences are clear and well-executed, but not particularly creative or awe-inspiring; mostly, Dredd just shoots a bunch of people. There’s little variety or escalation in the dangers they face – the only challenge Dredd faces comes when he starts running low on ammo.

There are some occasional creative flourishes: The drug at the centre of the story, slo-mo, slows down the user’s perceptions of time, leading to some lovely looking shootouts that look like a more eloquent version of The Matrix‘s bullet time; it’s also where the film makes the best use of 3D. And Anderson’s psychic abilities provide an occasional respite from the ultraviolence, even if they do seem to vary in effectiveness depending on the demands of the plot.

Dredd runs on an even keel, lacking any particular highs or lows. It’s a perfectly entertaining film, even if it never offers the sort of Wow! moment you’d like from an action film. It maintains quick pace, and its 95-minute running time is downright heroic in this era of 3-hour blockbusters. It’s also mercifully short on life lessons, morality parables, or philosophical ruminations on the nature of justice. It gets in, does its job effectively, and gets out, just like its titular law enforcement officer.