Mega City One is a sprawling, sweaty and combustible city which has risen from the ashes of a fallen world. Policing this city are the Judges and one of the key members is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban). Dredd is tasked with breaking in rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) when investigating gang-related murders in one of the massive skyscrapers housing the cities people, but the two find themselves up against Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who rules the development through her control of a new drug, Slo-Mo.
Dredd has been bubbling away under the radar for a while now. After Danny Canon’s disastrous Slyvester Stallone version from the 1990s killed the franchise hopes dead, it got a jump start with the involvement of acclaimed author/screenwriter Alex Garland who took a hands-on approach to bringing the Judge back to the big screen with a modest budget, a cast of names who aren’t quite A-list and a hope to give the long running comic star the justice he deserves.
I don’t have any real connection with the world of Judge Dredd, but I can’t help but think that fans of the series will be thrilled, as what we have here is a confident, arresting shot of adrenaline which will hopefully satisfy those who know the character. As a non-fan, I came away thinking this is one of the best action films since the turn of the century.
This may well sound hyperbolic, and I have been known to be given to this at times, but even if this is a subjective opinion, it pushed all the buttons I wanted pushed and left me thrilled, a key aspect being the visual design of the film. Though Mega City One does basically look like Cape Town with some CG buildings, there’s a dusty and grimey look to the city which feeds into the desolation of the Peach Trees tower block the Judges find themselves in.
The idea of “Slo-Mo” is also a revelation. While the film doesn’t manage to do this quite as much as one suspects director Pete Travis would have liked, we see sights here which are genuinely inventive and – gasp – original. Bullets seem to pummel into people, ripping their flesh apart in meticulous detail, colours are heightened and if you see the film in 3D, a surreal sense of depth is added as water drops appear in the foreground splashing down with delicacy. Amongst all the brutality, and there’s plenty of it, there are sequences crafted here which are legitimately beautiful, and that is something I’d never expect to say, although with Anthony Dod Mantle as the cinematographer, I guess shouldn’t be much of a stretch.
The more standard action pieces are cracking too though, as Dredd and Anderson proceed through the block punching, shooting and blowing up any number of folks along the way and while the plotting has some similarity to The Raid, the way the story plays out and how the action is cheographed and shot is very different. There’s some daring editing from Mark Eckersley (a sequence set within the mind is stunning) and a nice mix of thumping electronica and occasionally chilled but incredibly mood setting music from Paul Leonard-Morgan. You’ll be hard pushed to be thinking about The Raid by the end.
A lot of this would come to nothing if Dredd himself wasn’t a good choice, but thankfully Karl Urban gives an unselfish performance which never wavers, never gives any sense of doubt but does go through an arc in which he learns to believe in the good nature of those he can trust, with Thirlby’s ass-kicking but entirely empathetic character giving nice chemistry and leading to solid arcs for both. Lena Headey also puts in a great performance as Ma-Ma, looking and acting like she’s wholly capable, but rather strung out throughout, leading to an antagonist who isn’t physically intimidating but is a little scarier for it.
Dredd is a blast. Feeling standalone enough to work as a single movie but with scope for outwardly more epic fare, it’s one of the finest action movie experiences I’ve had the pleasure of taking in for quite some time and as of writing in my own personal top 3 of the year. Check it out. It’s the law.