One sentence synopsis: The veteran Judge Dredd and a rookie psychic must fight for their lives against an arcology-wide drug gang.
Things Havoc liked: Ever since appearing in The Lord of the Rings, Karl Urban has apparently made it his personal mission to appear in as many terrible action movies as he possibly can. Oh there's exceptions here and there (his turn as Leonard McCoy in Star Trek was inspired), but I refuse to believe that movies like Doom, Pathfinder, or Priest ever looked good, even on paper. That said, I've always had a soft spot for Urban, as even in the worst of films, he always manages to avoid looking like a complete fool by playing everything as straight and simple as possible, letting others do the hilarious overacting. Given this, his selection for Judge Dredd makes perfect sense. A far cry from the 90s Stalone adaptation, Urban's Dredd is less a character than a presence, a monotone archetype of toughness, perpetually scowling, whispering in a gravelly voice filled with menace. Though I've never read the comics, Urban's Dredd is exactly what I expected the character to embody, a single-minded lawman of simply inhuman dedication. He is not a caricature, nor a monomaniacal ass, there are sequences where he expresses admiration for idealistic views of the law, but Dredd himself is a remorseless, relentless figure, not cynical so much as beyond ideology. Urban plays him as a man who feels no need to bluster over his embodiments of the Law, for he has nothing whatsoever to prove. And given Urban's solid action movie credentials up to this point, the result is exactly as it should be.
This much I expected. What I didn't expect was Olivia Thirlby, an unknown 20-something playing Judge Anderson, a rookie cop with advanced psychic capabilities assigned to Dredd for evaluation. When I heard that this was to be the setup, I damn-near wrote the movie off altogether. If there's one cliche to cop movies that I simply don't need to see again, it's the 'young, fresh-faced rookie who must prove himself to the hardened veteran', particularly when the young rookie is a woman, typically intended to bring the softer side out of our main character. To my abject astonishment however, that's not at all what I received here. Anderson is young, and a rookie, intimidated by Dredd and her surroundings, and yet when the chips are down, she does not come across as the hesitating newbie who must make good, but a confident judge learning very quickly on her feet, bringing her own perspective to the business of law enforcement. A good early sequence establishes her motives for joining the judges, and the rationale given follows her all the way through the terrible ordeal she is made to undergo. Moreover, a sequence midway through the movie, when she is called upon to employ her psychic abilities to interrogate a suspect is damn near inspired, sidestepping all of our expectations for what letting a frightened girl into the mind of a hardened killer will result in, in favor of exploring just how scary a Judge with mental powers should properly be. Thirlby does all this without ever once losing the veneer of a rookie cop, allowing the film to ride the line of viewer expectation from start to finish. I admit to being impressed.
Most of the film takes place in a massive "block" tower, a 200-story skyscraper housing tens of thousands of residents, controlled by a criminal gang that must number in the high hundreds. In addition to provoking comparisons to last year's "The Raid" (more on that later), this location (chosen I assume to keep the costs down) allows the movie to focus on practical, as opposed to CGI effects, a decision I generally welcome. The action is crisp and easy to follow, unladen with modern contrivances such as shakycam, and while there's a fair amount of slo-mo work, it's actually explained in the plot quite well, and used for aesthetic, rather than stupid reasons. The supporting cast, headlined by Wood Harris (of the Wire) is uniformly excellent, giving us a gang of drug-fiends that are entirely believable, and grounding the more absurd stuff we are shown in a realistic setting. Overall, the movie simply works, and comes out to a good, solid action flick.
Things Havoc disliked: Of course, that's not to say that there's no problems at all. One of them is unfortunately the villain, played by Lena Headey. Headey, of Sarah Connor and Game of Thrones fame is entirely wasted in this movie, playing a rote-criminal named Ma Ma who produces and sells drugs. The movie gives her no motives beyond that, despite hints of an interesting back-story, and she is required to play through the film in such a drug-addled stupor that it probably wouldn't matter anyway. I know the focus is supposed to be on Dredd and Anderson, but a villain can often make an action film, and it would have been nice to see some effort in that direction.
Frankly though, the main issue I had with this movie is going to sound a bit churlish. I've always held the position that it's neither fair nor reasonable to criticize a movie for not being a different movie, but in this case, having seen The Raid, a movie that is practically a carbon copy of this one, I find myself unable to separate the two, and unfortunately, Dredd comes out worse in the comparison. The Raid's action, though I stand by my position that it was not quite at the A+ level of some other kung fu blockbusters, was still of very high quality, and Dredd's, workmanlike though it is, just isn't in that same class. The gunfights are too procedural, and the bulky judge costumes prevent the actors (or stuntmen) from performing acrobatic stunts or hand-to-hand combat. I get that Dredd is not a typical action hero, a direct and forceful presence who simply bludgeons his way through any opposition, but the action in this film actually gets repetitive, as it never varies from Dredd shooting people with various types of ammunition while looking stern. It's all done well, but the action is never allowed to build to a transcendent "awesome" moment, instead simply running through scene after scene of shooting the same bad guys in the same fashion.
Final thoughts: I must admit to being surprised that I liked Dredd at all, and yet while that's always a welcome development, it didn't manage to wow me the way other action films of this or last year did. That said, I did think the movie worked, and the concept and casting deserve a look. Given that the alternative for fans of Judge Dredd is Sylvester Stalone screaming at Armand Assante about the LAAAAAUUUGGGHH, I don't hesitate to suggest that such fans may want to cleanse their cinematic palates here.
After all, there's no Rob Schneider this time.
Final Score: 6.5/10