About three minutes into 2012’s Dredd, starring Karl Urban, my wife said to me, “This is like a video game.” This turned out to be a fairly apt assessment, though I think my wife only half realized how correct she was, owing to the fact that she isn’t particularly a fan of video games and she fell asleep roughly 30 minutes into this movie. So yeah…Dredd is that kind of film.
This is essentially a beat-em-up game in cinematic clothing. There are no real surprises, so you can go fix yourself a sandwich in the middle of the film, come back 10 minutes later, and the same sorts of things will be happening. The plot doesn’t evolve. Judge Dredd’s goal to ascend to the top of the megablock tower is a constant. We know who the villain is from the start, we know why, and we know Judge Dredd will eventually kill her, not before killing an army of her goons. Dredd doesn’t follow any sort of conventional three act narrative structure. It’s extremely linear. You get the idea.
Dredd just is what it is. Unabashedly. And with that said…I found it to be pretty damn fun. Dredd features a huge body count and a ton of particularly graphic violence. It also features Karl Urban providing what I honestly believe is an amazing performance as the totally humorless and largely faceless protagonist.
One reviewer on the Internet Movie Database referred to Urban’s performance as “jaw acting”. That made me laugh out loud, but it’s a great term for what he does here. It really is all in the mouth, and don’t fool yourself–not just any actor could pull this off.
I do think, however, that the reason Urban was able to get away with such a single-minded performance is owed to a pretty good pairing with Olivia Thirlby as the rookie cop that Judge Dredd is tasked with evaluating. This was certainly not a wasted character nor a wasted actress. Dredd portrays Judge Anderson as a woman who wants to succeed in the career for which the brutal world has selected her, and she only confronts in the most minor sense the moral ambiguity intrinsic to her role as judge, jury, and executioner. The extent to which she does, however, is invaluable to the film, I think.
Most importantly, there isn’t even a shred of sexual tension or romantic sentiment between these two judges. Thank god, as that would have been ludicrous.
To be clear, though I am a fan of comic books, I’ve never read any of the 2000AD comics featuring Judge Dredd. Whether this is faithful or not to the source material is a question that I can’t answer. I have a feeling that it is, though I also feel that it’s faithfulness is probably largely immaterial to whether or not a person will enjoy Dredd.
Dredd feels like a small film with uncomplicated goals, but it very adequately accomplishes those goals while having absolutely no delusions about the sort of film that it is. I can appreciate this sort of straightforward filmmaking, and it’s not surprising that Dredd seems to have acquired some sort of cult audience despite having been a total flop at the box office.
Now that you’ve read that, go watch this video review of both Dredd and Judge Dredd (1995) by my friend Donald of Blessed Are the Geeks.