Had I seen this before the end of the year 2012, I would've certainly placed it among one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. I admire director Pete Travis' career so far (his work on Endgame more so than Vantage Point) and Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) has always been a buzz-worthy screenwriter, so I had high hopes for a more realistically down-and-dirty take on Judge Dredd whose characterization and world had previously been butchered in an overly commercial 1990s Sylvester Stallone incarnation. I saw the trailer for this new adaptation and it just didn't seem all that interesting. There was a bunch of slo-mo and a sense of gratuitous violence; I felt like I had seen fifty other trailers like this already. Then there were the rumors of the film's troubled production that were eventually confirmed. So at that point, I had written the movie off completely.
Then it came out and it started to get some decent write-ups. A few bloggers and members of various forums I frequent had given it some high praise. I started to see it pop-up on "Surprises of the Year" or "Movies You Thought Were Going to Suck But Didn't" lists. Fast track to a year later and my friends are telling me to give it a watch. I sat down and watched it and frankly, it should be the blueprint for an ideal action film.
Not to say the action genre is any lesser or greater than others, but it certainly has become a widely popularized, mainstream, and diluted style of filmmaking. For every Aliens or Die Hard there are five other rip-offs to be found at the box office. Thankfully, Dredd is so well-crafted that you can't help but admire how thrilling and fun the experience is. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I always say the mark of a good movie is if I'm moved or changed when I leave the theater. Whether I cried for a drama, laughed at a comedy, or cheered for an action hero, I would ultimately feel different. Then I can say I recommend the experience of a specific work. In this case, I felt fully enveloped into this world through it suspense.
The plot of Dredd is quite simple, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, in a very Eastwood-esque manner) is stuck training a new rookie judge named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on her first outing. The city they work in is populated by rampant gang violence with gang leaders controlling their turf from tower blocks that resemble part-ghetto and part-gated community. Each tower-structure is its own world with its own rules. Dredd and Anderson soon find themselves tracing a drug to a block run by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who once the judges are inside, looks down the complex and puts a bounty on their heads. The only thing the judges can do... fight their way to the top and remove the cruel leader from her post.
Cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle (like Garland, a collaborator of Danny Boyle's) stages the shots and set-ups so beautifully that the film looks like an almost steam-punk version of The Wire. The action is kinetic and constantly moving with the edits and the camera work. The quickest shootouts or shot of characters running is as thrilling and nerve-wracking as the next major set-piece. Travis and Garland are smart enough to include some character development. Dredd really only changes at the end while much of the arc is placed on Anderson and we end up learning about others through her. The gratuity that might've turned me off turns out to be a part of the darkly-cynical and sometimes humorous tone of the work and the slo-mo is actually a clever plot-device that showcases the effects of the drug use.
Visually stunning and a lot of fun, but at no point feels like it was part of some factory assembly line of mass produced movies. Argueably an underrated and undervalued example of how the action genre can be revived.