A movie about Judge Dredd needs to do a bunch of things, just to be a decent movie in its own right. You need insane action. You need a portrayal of Judge Joe Dredd that lives up to the hard-as-granite, sleeps-with-his-helmet-on original. You need crazy villains. But there's one all-important test that any Judge Dredd movie must pass, or there's no point.
You have to find a way to portray Mega-City One, in all of its sprawling horror. Or else, none of it makes any sense. Luckily, Dredd aces this test. Spoilers ahead...
Mega-City One is like a main character in the Judge Dredd saga. Stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., it's a single city housing hundreds of millions of people, most of whom live in massive "blocks," arcologies which are basically self-contained cities in their own right. It's surrounded by the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Cursed Earth, but the city is a kind of wasteland as well. Mega-City One is ungovernable, beyond saving, an urban Hell.
Put Judge Dredd into just a moderately terrible dystopian city, and he'll appear to be a massive overreaction. A cartoon hard-ass, dispensing completely over-the-top "justice." A cure that's worse than the disease. It's only in the lowest circle of hell that Judge Dredd can seem like he belongs — much less being someone you can root for.
The good news is, Dredd, in theaters today, does a pretty impressive job of bringing the ultimate urban sprawlmare to life, with a great deal of economy. The movie's low budget actually works for it, because it can't rely on huge effects sequences to sell its extreme setting. There are a few shots of the endless landscape of concrete monoliths, at the beginning and end of the movie, accompanied by a grim voiceover by Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) explaining just what a massive shithole his city is.
But mostly, we see Mega-City One at ground level, and in particular we spend most of the movie in just one horrible slum tower, called Peach Trees Block. Before I saw Dredd, I was worried that spending most of the movie in just one block, doing a variation on Die Hard, would make this film into a generic action movie. But the good news is, Peach Trees never feels like just a regular building — we are always aware just how huge Peach Trees is, which reinforces in turn the scale of the city as a whole.
Judge Dredd never feels anything but outnumbered and overmatched in this film. Pretty much from beginning to end, he's up against pretty much all the creeps, with just one rookie judge (Olivia Thirlby) by his side. It's an important distinction: Mega-City One is not a police state, it's a state of anarchy in which a tiny handful of lawmen (and women) try to keep order against all odds.
In a lot of ways, Dredd's vision of the future city is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s — the era before Giuliani and widespread gentrification. A time when the destiny of cities seemed to be worsening crime and squalor, not so much with the artisanal bakeries and vegan satchel stores. In the world of Dredd, not only did the Cold War continue for decades and decades longer — resulting in that nuclear holocaust — but also Ed Koch's New York kept getting bigger and weirder.
It's a testament to the power of Dredd that you come away feeling as though this nightmarish dysurban future is still plausible, still has power and relevance.
A big part of why this all works so well is the movie's non-stop brutality, which never lets up. The blood pretty much never stops flowing (and flying) in this film, and the first time we meet the main villain Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, never better) she impresses us with a truly outstanding level of sadism that makes us root against her as much as we root for Dredd.
And now, the capsule synopsis: In Dredd, it's training day. Judge Dredd takes a newbie named Judge Anderson (Thirlby) out to see what she's got. They're called to Peach Trees, where some mooks have just been executed in a particularly nasty fashion. This turns into a drug bust — but then the fact that Judge Anderson is a mutant, with psychic powers, comes into play. Soon enough, Dredd and Anderson are in a position to do real damage to Ma-Ma's operation, and she's determined to wipe them out. It's two Judges against a megastructure full of killers.
Ma-Ma's operation, incidentally, is dealing the drug Slo-Mo, which is just what it sounds like — it slows everything down so a few seconds crawl by. Whenever we witness the effects of Slo-Mo, it looks absolutely gorgeous, with every bit of light throwing off sparkles and all of the little details frozen in time. And yet, Slo-Mo is also used pretty often to dramatize a moment of extreme carnage, as in this "drug bust" clip at left — it's fascinating that the main source of beauty in the film is also the biggest source of horror.
And yes, like I mentioned, this movie is amazingly violent. If you've been missing the "oceans of gore" approach to action movies — and really, who hasn't? — you'll find Dredd a welcome throwback.
So how can be Dredd be massively outnumbered, like an ant in a shitstorm, and yet also The Law? Through mind games, and through sheer force of personality and will. The central conflict of this movie, in a way, is who rules Peach Trees: Dredd, who's just passing through, or Ma-Ma, who lives there.
Among the clips that the studio has helpfully released are a dueling pair of scenes where first Ma-Ma, and then Judge Dredd, address the people of Peach Trees:
That propaganda war sort of illuminates the core of Dredd's message about cities: we don't keep order or preserve the social compact out of altruism or because we believe the state can really monitor our behavior all the time. Rather, we mostly obey the law out of unreasoning fear, a fear that Judge Dredd lives to exploit.
The other main thread of the film is Judge Anderson's journey from callow greenhorn to total badass, over the course of just one terrible day. The film imagines Anderson's psychic abilities as a form of sensitivity as well as a source of strength. Unlike Dredd, who's impenetrable, lacking both empathy and expressiveness, Anderson gives too much away and is too aware of others — but over the course of the film, she learns to turn that into a strength.
In any case, this is a really terrific action movie, that manages to keep the balance of Dredd being both the underdog and the establishment, so that you keep wondering how he's going to get out of the latest crazy scrape. The stakes are raised over the course of the film, in a non-contrived fashion, and the violence is lovingly choreographed. Most of all, you always have a clear sense of the geography of Peach Trees and where we are at any given time. Which helps the action a lot.
A final thought: We're used to seeing post-apocalyptic stories that are more in the mold of Hunger Games, where a young protagonist faces the oppressive, lying order that has risen up in the ashes. Dredd is a throwback to the good old days of stories like the first Mad Max, where a lone cop is trying to keep the whirlwind under control. It's sort of refreshing to root for The Man again.