Had Dredd been released before The Raid: Redemption, it probably would have felt a lot more fresh. The fact of the matter is that the similar premises, along with release dates relatively close together, makes the latter film feel less original than it should. I’m not claiming one ripped off the other, or anything similar to that, but as a viewer who doesn’t live in a vacuum, it’s impossible to ignore some very glaring similarities that wind up making whatever came second come across as lacking. This is especially true because The Raid wound up being pretty darn amazing.
The plot. We’re in the future in which everyone in America lives in a single, “mega,” city. Judges have replaced police officers and act basically like RoboCop. They are people, but they’re equipped with all sorts of technology to make them almost invulnerable. They assess situations and people and sentence on the spot. If someone’s crime is bad enough, lethal force is permitted. The best of the best is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), because the film is called “Dredd.” Or is it the other way around? It’s a chicken-egg situation, isn’t it?
Dredd is asked to evaluate a new recruit, Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby), who failed her aptitude tests but has psychic powers — apparently that’s a thing that can happen in the future — so they’re going to test her out in the field. The two head to an apartment complex, make an arrest, and then find themselves locked down by the drug lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who tells everyone in the complex to either hide or hunt down the two Judges. Dredd and Cassandra now have to fight to survive, all while bringing down every gang member in this run-down area of the city.
The is a hyper-violent, no-holds-barred — and I’m sure some other hyphenated cliche — action movie, one in which a lot of people die, even more are injured, and there’s little else going on. It’s a pure action film, one in which a heartless robot-man and his psychic sidekick eliminate a whole lot of bad guys. He’s the muscle, she’s the heart — or, at least, that’s what the film wants — and everyone else is soon to be a victim to their onslaught.
Maybe part of the issue is that the two judges never seem to be in a whole lot of danger, even though they’ve got 200 floors of gang members to deal with. Dredd has a helmet and suit that apparently makes him really hard to hit, while Cassandra has psychic powers and can make anyone believe anything. And when they do get hit, they have insta-heal packs that can fix more or less any wound. The film loses some of its suspense because of this.
Don’t get me wrong. Dredd is still good fun. The action scenes are inventive and more violent than you might expect — I’m kind of surprised the film didn’t try to go for a PG-13 rating, actually — the pacing is breakneck … and pretty much anything else doesn’t matter. It’s gritty and dark without feeling forced, and there are a few moments of pitch-black humor mixed in for good effect. This isn’t a cheese-fest or a farce, and playing all of its content straight helps make it credible.
One of Dredd‘s gimmicks is that the villains are manufacturing a drug called “Slo-Mo,” which does basically what you can guess based on its name. It slows down the user’s perception of time to 1% of what’s real. This allows for some spectacularly trippy slow motion scenes, because once a character takes the drug, our perspective is slowed to theirs. It’s a cool visual effect and one of the more effective uses of slow motion that you’ll get to see. Mix that in with the hyper-violent nature of the film, and you’ve got some interesting visuals.
There is no character depth or development. There is barely any plot. Cliches and cannon-fodder enemies drive us forward. Would you believe me if I told you corrupt Judges show up in the late game just to give our characters a bit of a challenge? That’s exactly what happens, by the way, in a twist so obvious you better be able to see it coming. Oh, and I’m told it matters to people whether or not Dredd takes off his helmet, so I’m pleased(?) to report he doesn’t.
Instead, Karl Urban has to act with his mouth and chin, which basically means he doesn’t have to do much other than provide a neutral face and a gravelly voice. The heart is supposed to come from Olivia Thirlby, but save for one or two scenes, this doesn’t come up that much. Lena Headey is funny as the villain, but never particularly threatening. Domhnall Gleeson is here for a few scenes as a computer expert bullied into working for the gang. Everyone else is fodder for the two leads to gun down.
Dredd is a fun movie. It would be even more enjoyable had it not been released after The Raid and if it was able to generate more suspense by allowing its protagonists to feel more vulnerable. It’s extremely violent, it has some gorgeous use of slow motion, it’s dark and has some great deadpan and black comedy, and it’s well-paced. There’s not much story and very little to the characters, but I have a feeling not very many people are going to care about either.