The year is ‘The Future’. All clothes are leather. Rogue expository voiceovers fill the grim streets of Mega-City One, a megalopolis dominating the post-World War 3 Eastern Seaboard.
Yes, it’s another cinematic outing for comic book anti-hero Judge Dredd, poster boy for police brutality and one-man judge-jury-and-executioner – but with a daring twist: this time, it’s actually good.
1995’s Judge Dredd was an expensive failure, costing half as much again as Jurassic Park and proving less profitable than Waterworld. It was bloated, convoluted, uncomprehending of the source material and generally poorly made, its only saving grace the copious hamminess provided by Sylvester Stallone’s Dredd and Armand Assante’s villain. Dredd consciously tones it down.
Made on half the budget, Dredd is an extremely simple film. 90 minutes of firefights in an apartment block is a complete synopsis, and the film both benefits and suffers as a result. The focus is unwaveringly laser-sharp, producing a movie which refuses to let itself get bogged down in plot, characterisation or detail.
This is not necessarily bad. Dredd knows just what it is: a lovingly rendered and playfully brutal bit of the old ultraviolence. Karl Urban (Star Trek, Lord of the Rings) gives us a suitably grizzled Dredd who never removes his helmet (as in the comics), resulting in a performance consisting entirely of growled one-liners and an impressive range of manly frowns. Dredd gets it: its protagonist is no more than a faceless representation of The Law. All its (minor) character development is correspondingly shunted onto psychic sidekick Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie Judge who is at least more sympathetic than Rob Schneider’s tagalong in Judge Dredd.
Throughout Dredd, there is a sense of the characters and plot doing what they have to and no more: Lena Headey (Game of Thrones, 300) and Wood Harris (The Wire) give us one-dimensional villains, there only to serve a narrative function but played well enough for what they are.
Dredd is a laconic film, almost literally. Intelligently shot to resemble the comics and laced with beautifully trippy, drug-induced slow-mo sequences, it draws from 300 a style that celebrates and stylises gory violence; John Woo films and the gritty sci-fi of the 80s are other clear influences, notably in the driving, synth-heavy industrial soundtrack and grimy, concrete-heavy aesthetic.
Nobody would call it adventurous, and indeed Dredd knows it’s not breaking new ground. The social satire the comics run on is eliminated, new antagonists show up out of nowhere specifically for the climax, and complexity is eschewed; it’s a video game you watch rather than play. And that’s not bad!
Dredd knows precisely what it is and revels in it. It doesn’t have the satirical bite of Starship Troopers or Robocop and it doesn’t hold a candle to Blade Runner, but it does absolutely everything it sets out to do and stays sharp, fresh and wildly entertaining as a result.
Dredd is the apotheosis of 80s-style sci-fi shlock, and it’s proud of it.