A considerably overlooked film when it comes to the sci-fi genre, Dredd, written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame, City of Tiny Lights), centres on said character. Whose comic strip in the science fiction anthology series, 2000 AD, was one of the longest-running in the magazine’s history, being featured since its second issue in 1977. Merging futurism with law enforcement, Dredd and his fellow Judges are empowered to arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot, and this modern film adaptation, fuelled by much of the same bombastic violence and sci-fi imagery, does a remarkable job of capturing its source material’s gritty spirit.
Plot Summary: In a dystopian future on the American East Coast lies the overpopulated and crime-ridden metropolis known as Mega-City One, police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner. Within this city, one of these officers, the resolute; Judge Dredd, is assigned to assess rookie, Cassandra Anderson, as the two are ordered to reach the top of an apartment complex and stop Ma-Ma and her clan from manufacturing and distributing narcotics. But, when the pair enter the complex, they find themselves ensnared as Ma-Ma locks down the building, forcing Dredd and his newfangled partner to fight their way out, one level at a time…
Technically a reboot following the character’s first cinematic interpretation with 1995’s Judge Dredd, which featured Sylvester Stallone as the titular character. Dredd is a far more faithful adaption, as while Stallone may have looked the part, it was clear that the film itself thoroughly misunderstood the source material. Dredd, however, immediately thrusts its audience into a riveting and intense story, which considering how self-contained it is, also manages to fit a surprising amount of world-building in between. Hinting towards the many other districts of Mega-City One we could’ve seen should Dredd have been a box-office success rather than the commercial disappointment it sadly was, earning a little over £41 million on a budget of £45 million.
Speaking only when necessary and never giving even the slightest hint of emotion, Karl Urban portrays the film’s protagonist, Judge Dredd, with extreme accuracy. Illustrating Urban’s clear understanding of the role, just as he does in the original comic strips, Dredd never breaks temperament or goes through a moving character arc. Instead, Dredd is simply an incorruptible officer with no time for low-life criminals and Urban nails this portrayal, even with half his head obscured by a helmet for the entirety of the runtime. Dredd’s partner, Cassandra Anderson, portrayed by Olivia Thirlby, is also a compelling character, demonstrating a level of skill far below her superior yet possessing psychic abilities which make her too valuable to dismiss. Lastly, there is Ma-Ma, the film’s antagonist, who was originally written as an elderly woman before Lena Headey convinced Alex Garland to make her a middle-aged misandrist. And although there isn’t the same depth to her character as Dredd or his rookie partner, Ma-Ma is still a convincing felon, as Headey portrays a ruthless individual living in an equally ruthless world.
Playing into the idea of this post-apocalyptic world being in constant disarray, Dredd‘s grimy set design along with its murky brown colour palette presents the setting of Mega-City One (a.k.a. Johannesburg with a few CG enhancements) as a rundown metropolis with similarly rundown technology. Correspondingly, the filthy hallways of the apartment complex, Peach Trees, are always permeated with litter, aged sci-fi scrap and spray-painted walls. Moreover, the film is given a great sense of style through the energetic camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle and the smooth integration of CG effects, which outside of a handful of scenes where the film fully indulges in graphic violence by having blood flung towards the camera, have aged admirably.
As you’d expect from a pessimistic sci-fi film, the original score by Paul Leonard-Morgan is both rousing and brooding, with tracks like Mega-City One and You Look Ready all perfectly accompanying what’s on-screen through their heady mix of guitar riffs and thumping electronic beats. Making for a score that, even with only twenty tracks, has no real filler, as every musical piece flawlessly correlates with the film’s fast-paced action.
Continuing to be true to the original comic strip, Dredd’s primary form of transportation: the Lawmaster Motorcycle is faithfully recreated for the film, as the production team created a series of functional bikes for filming. They achieved this by having the chassis of normal bikes extended and then adding custom fairings as well as fitting the bikes with larger tires so they could remain operable. In a similar sense, Dredd’s iconic outfit is also recreated, only being slightly modified to give the suit a sleeker, more modernised look.
In summary, though many may see this sci-fi action-thriller as pure style-over-substance and nothing else, Dredd is a film deeply committed to the genres it’s trying to represent. With thrilling action sequences, substantial world-building and impressive visual effects all rooted in deadpan humour, Dredd is a more than entertaining ride. And in a world full of compromised adaptations where self-indulgent directors and screenwriters make whatever changes they desire without much thought or consideration. Dredd is something of a triumph, as the film avoids the common misstep adaptations tend to take, where the final product ends up bearing little resemblance to its source material aside from the title. Rating: low 8/10.