Dir. by Pete Travis - 1 hr. 35 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Dredd" might not look like much, judging from the trailer. If you're at all familiar with the source material, or just dig violent sci-fi movies, sure, this might look interesting. But otherwise? But this is a very solid film, with moments that are way too good for a run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up (which isn't exactly a fair description of "Dredd," but I'd forgive you if that's the impression you got).
So what, then, exactly is "Dredd" about? It's based on a British comic book by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, firstly. America has been turned into a nuclear wasteland, save for Mega-City One, a vast walled city on the eastern seaboard that contains eight-hundred million inhabitants. Crime is the order of the day, with only government-backed judges to enforce law and order. These judges are basically heavily-armed soldiers who pronounce sentences (and carry them out) on the spot. The titular character, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), is a particularly effective and grizzled judge, who is asked to evaluate a rookie judge (Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby), who is on the bubble, yet possesses certain abilities that are rare. As luck would have it, Judges Dredd and Anderson almost immediately get in over their head, being trapped inside a two hundred-story slum, with an enormous bounty put on their heads by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who is the head of a drug cartel. The drug in question, Slo-Mo, is brand new to the streets, and slows the passage of time to one-hundredth speed.
Judge Dredd is a juggernaut, a character that has evolved into a ruthlessly efficient upholder of the law. If you're one of those people that were annoyed by Christian Bale's "Batman voice," you'll probably be annoyed by the Dredd voice, too. But unlike Batman, there's no other side to Dredd. He's just balls-to-the-wall all the time. His costume obscures everything except his frowning mouth and chin (and it seems unfair to only call Urban's expression a frown - it's more like the face you'd make if you had smelled garbage for the first time, and immediately hated it with every ounce of your being). And Dredd is the perfect juxtaposition for Anderson - her story is that of a timid rookie getting battle-tested immediately. If she survives, Dredd is what she'll end up becoming. This is an effective, basic story that works well to introduce the duo.
There are two things (and they're related) that really shine in "Dredd," and both relate to the director. First off, the violence is fascinating. This is an unbelievably violent film, but it's treatment is almost poetic. Because of the effects of Slo-Mo, we're treated to a few heavily-slowed down scenes. When this is simply to introduce (or reinforce) the effects of the drug, the film has a breath-taking beauty. Granted, things slow to a crawl, but the grimy, filthy setting gains a colorful haze and things sparkle - without seeing how awfully grim and colorless the setting is, it's hard to understand how powerfully this comes across. It's not hard to understand the popularity of the drug itself as a momentary respite from the oppressiveness of the environment.
When the effects of the drug are applied to scenes of violence, the film is fascinating in the same way the slow-motion video of a man being hit in the stomach with a cannonball is. Skin ripples from impact, bullets tear through flesh in a manner that is absolutely not sudden, but is completely graphic. This approach is striking and distinctive. Other scenes (there is one in particular, where the baddies unload thousands of high-powered rounds of ammo and obliterate an entire floor of the complex trying to kill Dredd) are loud and explosive. But it's the changing of speeds that make both approaches more interesting in this context.
Ultimately, making a visually-striking hyper-violent film doesn't mean that you have a great film on your hands. I generally liked the results here - the story was basic (and felt a little video-gameish), yet effective, and the action/violence scenes justified themselves. I'd go see another Dredd film without hesitation, but with the hopes that they fill in the blanks in the characters a bit.
3 / 5 - Theatre