When it comes to comic book adaptations, there are two basic issues: Is it a good adaptation of the comic book character, and does the film adaptation do justice to the text on which it’s based. There are few comic book-to-film adaptations that hit both marks. Wanted, for example, is an enjoyable movie but not a particularly solid adaptation. On the other hand, Punisher: War Zone is an excellent adaptation of the character of Frank Castle, but an average movie. And, more often than not, we end up with lazy efforts like Ghost Rider or Catwoman. But, there are the rare films that hit both notes: namely Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and 300 and Marvel’s Avengers films.
And now, we have Dredd. For you fans of the comic, I’m delighted to say you can now wash the bitter, acrid taste of Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd from your mouth. There’s no Rob Schneider in this Dredd for comic relief. In fact, there’s no comic relief at all. In fact, you can wipe if from your memory wholesale, because Dredd, directed by Pete Travis (Endgame, Vantage Point), stars Karl Urban as the Judge Dredd you’ve been waiting for. And better yet, it’s a damn good movie. Not perfect – it’s no The Dark Knight – but still thoroughly enjoyable.
One of the best aspects of Dredd is that it eschews the origin story approach. It gives a quick background — nuclear war has laid waste to society as we know it, and a massive, sprawling city — Mega-City One — is one of the last remaining vestiges of society. A vast, crime-ridden megalopolis that stretches from Boston to DC, its only saving grace is that it’s better than the mutant-infested radioactive wasteland beyond its walls. There is but one law in the decrepit, decaying Mega-City One, and that law is the Judges. They are literal judges, juries and executioners, heavily armed and armored cops who pass sentences on the spot and, if necessary, dole out the harshest form of justice. And that is all you need to know.
The other interesting facet of this Dredd is that it is quite literally a day-in-the-life picture: the entire film takes place in literally one day and serves a snapshot of the daily hell with which these Judges deal. On this particular day, however, things are just a bit more hellish.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) has been tasked with taking on a rookie partner, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), for one day to see if she can cut it. They investigate a triple homicide as well as a new and deadly drug, Slo-Mo, in Peach Trees, a monstrous apartment building run by Mega-City’s most vicious criminal, Madelaine “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Heady, the incestuous Lanister queen from Game of Thrones). After the Judges arrest one of her lieutenants, Kay (played by Avon Barksdale, himself, Wood Harris), Ma-Ma locks down the entire 200 story building and begins a full-scale hunt for Dredd and Anderson. And that’s the plot.
From there on, it’s up to the two judges to use a combination of wits, cunning, and unflinching, brutal violence to survive and fight their way to the top and stop Ma-Ma. Although short on plot, Dredd is surprisingly thrilling. Karl Urban is pretty much the Dredd, and his dropped voice into a rough rasp, but doesn’t go so far as to make it ridiculous and incoherent (take note, Christian Bale). His constant grim sneer casts the perfect image of the comic book character – a hulking legend of a cop who shows no mercy and never, ever hesitates to shoot first. Thirlby’s Anderson is a wide-eyed rookie who also has the benefit of being a powerful psychic because she grew up in a section of Mega City One that’s still beaming with radiation. The real highlight of Dredd is the Slo-Mo drug, which makes the user feel like time is moving at 1% its normal speed. The Slo-Mo induced action sequences are the highlight of the film: the seemingly DMT and nitrous oxide blend allows for the sequences that are half Enter the Void and half 300, the best of which being when Ma-Ma skin her foes alive, doses them with Slo-Mo, and throws them off the 200th story balcony.
The fact that Dredd is a pursuit film helps move the movie along. The Peach Trees tower is a monolithic pile of despair; a desolate warren of darkened hallways similar to the prison planet in David Fincher’s Alien 3. The action sequence imagery is vivid and lush, giving even the most gruesome of punishments an aura of wonderment.
Dredd is a barrage on the sense, a fiercely relentless assault that somehow manages to still deliver solid characterization and dialogue. Granted, there are a few too-cheesy lines here and there, but sometimes that’s the price you pay with comic book movies. But aside from the occasional stumbling dialogue, Dredd is vicious, visceral fun – a mean, nasty ride that’s certainly not for the faint of heart. When the blood sprays and the bullets fly and Dredd grimly and pitilessly wades through it all without pause, you won’t be able to stop the breathless, wicked smile on your face.
Oh, and for those who are curious: The helmet never comes off. Ever.