by J.D. Balthazar
Brutal, bloody, and surprisingly good, this new version of an adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic series comes alive with unexpectedly excellent performances and some gorgeous artistic visuals.
Set in the future after a nuclear apocalypse, the entirety of the United States lives in a single Mega-City with a population of about 800 million people. Within this city are structures known as Mega Blocks which house upwards of 70,000 people. The chaos of that kind of society is protected by a law enforcement agency that gives individuals the power to act as police, judge, jury, and even executioner. These Judges are feared, and extremely deadly.
We are immediately introduced to Dredd (Karl Urban), a one man army with a single expression (a menacing scowl), and a monotone gravelly voice. He sees only the law, and the rules that are the only thing keeping Mega-City One from devolving into chaos. He is tasked with evaluating Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to see if she is worthy of becoming a judge. She is the first person who's mutation, inflicted from generations of living in the radiation-impacted outskirts of the city, is a genuine gift. This mutation is a pivotal aspect of the character and used intelligently throughout the plot instead of as a throwaway character trait. She seems timid at first, and Dredd seems disposed to think of her as a failure, especially given her poor performance during training. But her quiet strength, determination, and innate goodness make her both a likeable character and an intriguing one.
Dredd, on the other hand, is a little harder to warm up to, but he is ultimately an interesting character that is more than armor deep. Which is remarkable because we never see his full face, and he never deviates from his monotone voice or single expression. I have to give massive kudos to Karl Urban for somehow bringing depth to what is essentially a true action archetype. He doesn't grow as a character, so I'm not sure how or why he becomes compelling as the story goes along. Perhaps there is something that rings true in the single-minded way he acts. This consistency of motivation makes him understandable, even if we never really learn anything substantial about him.
Dredd and Anderson chose to investigate a particularly nasty triple homicide that traps them in a situation that should be impossible to escape from. Dragging along an unwilling prisoner (Wood Harris - Avon Barksdale from The Wire) they have to figure out why they are being assaulted, and try to somehow survive an increasingly deadly onslaught of enemies. Leading the assault is a despicable woman named Madelaine Madrigal, nicknamed Ma-ma (Lena Headey). She is a former prostitute turned crime-lord who has created a highly addictive drug called Slo-Mo, which slows the user's perception to 1% of normal time.
This drug provides some of the most impressive visuals of the movie. The transition to super slow motion is simply breathtaking, because the image gets heightened with a unique glimmer that makes any source of light or reflective surface sparkle. These beautiful images are often amidst the most brutal violence, conjuring up a conflict of emotions upon seeing the sheer beauty of that unspeakably bloody violence. When these glacially moving moments in time speed back up, we are thrown into the gritty truth of that violence, but somehow it is never jarring. I don't think I've seen slow-motion used to such amazing effect before, and I doubt it could be pulled off in quite the same way again.
The plot wasn't exactly complicated, but it didn't need to be. It had just enough depth to it that it served the structure of the movie very well. Plus they never stayed in a single place long enough for the audience to notice that there might be any deficiencies. It wasn't perfect, but it had a level of tension and brutality most mainstream Hollywood movies would shy away from, unless they're horror. This movie is not a remake of Judge Dredd, the Sly Stallone bomb from '95, but because of that abysmal movie, I went into Dredd 3D with almost no expectations. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this film, and found myself thoroughly entertained.
3 out of 4 Sparkly droplets of blood splattered against the screen in slow motion.