I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never read any of the Judge Dredd comics. In fact, the only prior experience I’ve had with the character is the 1995 Stallone film of the same name. I’ll admit that I don’t have the best gauge for determining how faithful Dredd is to its source material, but I assume the general absence of blue contact lenses, screaming the word “LAW”, and Rob Schneider is a step in the right direction.
While I never knew much about the Judge Dredd character per se, I was always fascinated by the implications surrounding him. His story takes place in a dystopian society overrun with everything from overpopulation to crime and the only things standing in the way of total chaos are a team of law enforcement officers called “Judges”. The Judges are interesting because they’re the last line of defense, but at the same time, they represent policing in its most efficient and dehumanizing form. The Judges’ responsibilities blend those of police, judge, jury, and executioner. No trials, no warrants, no peers. This makes Judge Dredd an extremely complex subject for a comicbook film. He’s a hero, but kind of a tyrant at the same time. Where the Stallone film fails is most of the narrative involves Dredd operating outside of this society and his conventional set of duties, so we hardly get to explore any of the contradictions and implications of the character.
The camera mugging also didn’t help.
Unfortunately, Dredd doesn’t really do this either. Dredd is kept in the confines of this city this time, which gives us a better glimpse of the society in which he operates, but the film overall doesn’t leave a lot of room for analysis. To sum up Dredd in one word: spectacle. Almost from the beginning, the action is brutal and persistent, the visual effects are exaggerated and (way too) drawn out, and tensions and emotions are always running high. It does a good job of getting the audience swept up right away, but at the cost of our critical faculties. There’s simply no time to really get a handle on this world and the complexities of the people supposedly protecting it. Most of the plot involves Dredd (Karl Urban) and his rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) trapped in an apartment building, constantly on the run from drug lords and violent criminals who won’t stop until blood is shed. And boy, is a lot of blood shed in this movie. While this gives Dredd a fun Die Hard kind of feel, it places the characters in a situation so intense, it denies the audience a chance to really think about what’s happening.
But to give credit where credit is due, Dredd is a very entertaining movie. Karl Urban does a great job as Judge Dredd. Aside from occasionally trying to emulate Christian Bale’s “bat-voice”, Urban plays the character extremely cold and no-nonsense. You really can’t imagine Dredd doing anything other than working. This is probably the closest we get as an audience to the inhumanity a character like Judge Dredd lends himself to, which is only perpetuated by the fact that we never see his face (supposedly the one unbreakable rule of the comics).
A rule the Stallone flick happens to break in the first 15 minutes.
As mentioned, the action scenes and visual effects are ongoing and exaggerated to a spectacular level, and they keep the audience engaged. The villains are quite cookie-cutter, but have an omnipresence that allows for a lot of suspense and they overall prove worthy adversaries for Dredd. The pacing is also very quick and smooth, with tragic and comedic moments timed very nicely. The 3D effects are kind of pointless, but I would recommend seeing the film in IMAX or UltraAVX if you get the chance because it is very enjoyable from a visual standpoint.
If you find yourself able to see through all of the bells and whistles, however, you’ll find that Dredd lacks substance. A film about a the future of our society really should make room for some kind of social commentary, but you get the feeling that Dredd is copping out and putting shiny objects in your face instead. Even if those shiny objects are really enjoyable to watch.
I give it 3/5.