With Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Rakie Ayola, Langley Kirkwood. Written by Alex Garland. Directed by Pete Travis. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content. 95 minutes.
Do you ever read the reasons the MPAA gives for the ratings? If all you know about DREDD is that it’s a reboot (not a remake) of the character from the “2000AD” comic book previously brought to the screen by Sylvester Stallone in 1995, you might want to play closer attention. When the MPAA says that a film is rated R for “strong bloody violence,” that’s not merely colorful language. This is one of the most violent movies released this year. Consider that less a criticism than a warning. This is not for the squeamish.
It’s a post-apocalyptic future where the remnants of civilization live in a walled mega-city stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C. Lawlessness is rampant and the city is essentially ungovernable except for the “judges.” These are uniformed and masked crime fighters who combine the roles of police, prosecutor, judge and executioner. Dredd (Karl Urban) is one of the most ruthless and incorruptible of the judges.
After establishing the scenario, we find that he has been assigned to assess a potential new judge named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). She didn’t quite make the grade but she’s a mutant who can read minds. The chief judge (Rakie Ayola) thinks she may be useful. The rest of the film is about Dredd and Anderson on assignment in the massive Peach Trees complex where they are working on a brutal triple murder. It’s connected to Ma Ma (Lena Headey), the vicious crime boss who runs the complex with an iron fist. She is using it to launch a deadly new drug called “Slo Mo” that makes the user feel time has slowed to a crawl.
What happens after that is more of what we’ve already seen: lots of “strong bloody violence.” Dredd shoots a bunch of thugs on Slo Mo and we see the bullets piercing various body parts in slow motion. A beggar who Dredd tells to move along remains in place, not realizing it is where a massive steel gate is set to come down. Several people plunge down the 200 story Peace Trees atrium with sickening splats, none more so than the last one. It is unrelenting.
That’s not to say it isn’t done with some style and cleverness. Most of the time Anderson’s power consists of her head being oddly lit as she “reads” someone’s mind. Yet in one scene we get to see it from her perspective, as she is interrogating a suspect, and it’s a head game in more ways than one. As for Urban, there’s no question this was either a brave or foolish role for him to take. Already established as a supporting player in the “Riddick” and “Star Trek” film franchises (he was the superb Dr. McCoy in the 2009 “Trek” reboot), here he’s taken a leading role… where, as in the comic, his entire face is covered except for his mouth and chin. This is for the entire movie. Even Peter Weller got a few scenes in the original “Robocop” where we got to see him pre-helmet.
“Dredd” is solid action fare which is apparently a lot closer to its source than the Stallone film was, presenting a fantasy would that might border on fascist but for the humanizing presence of Anderson, who lets one member of Ma Ma’s gang go free on the grounds that he’s a victim, not a criminal. Dredd is about justice without mercy, although he does notably hold back in one scene. If Dredd is tough, at least “Dredd” acknowledges that we ought to have some qualms about the system depicted here even while we’re enjoying a bit of the ultra-violence.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.