many modern Comic book adaptations spend their entire runtime on elaborate origin stories, only finishing their setup when the movie is nearing completion, to tease a new adventure in the sequel. But 10 years ago, Alex Garland made a dystopian cult classic that wastes no time getting to what veteran fans and newcomers alike want to see.
Instead of trying to adapt a beloved multi-part epic or incorporate various threads of classic continuity, Dredd tells a simple, straightforward story with a handful of characters, largely confined to one location. That may have been dictated in part by budget constraints, but it’s still a refreshing contrast to bloated superhero movies.
Within your first two minutes more or less Dredd lays out its basic premise in a voiceover from its star, Karl Urban. Released 10 years ago this week, Dredd it’s based on a comic book character with decades of adventures, a great supporting cast, and an intricate mythology, but screenwriter Alex Garland dispenses with all of that quickly and efficiently.
Urban’s Judge Dredd is a law enforcement officer in a dystopian future, where “judges” function as the entire legal system, investigating crimes, arresting suspects, trying and executing sentences all at the same time. Dredd operates in Mega-City One, a huge megalopolis that occupies most of the eastern seaboard of the former United States.
Mega-City One is home to 800 million residents, but Dredd and his rookie partner Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are concentrated in a single 200-story building known as the Peach Trees, which houses 75,000 people. They arrive to investigate a triple homicide, three low-level gang members who have been skinned alive and then thrown from a 200-story-high balcony. Almost the entire film takes place inside the Peach Trees, where Dredd and Anderson are fighting for their lives against the forces of crime boss Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Headey).
Dredd opens with a thrilling car chase as Dredd tracks down a group of unrelated criminals. We then follow Dredd to HQ, where he pairs up with Anderson. It only takes 15 minutes to get Dredd and Anderson to the Peach Trees, where they stay for the rest of the movie. The goals and stakes are clear, as Ma-Ma decides the judges cannot be allowed to get away with her subordinate Kay (Wood Harris), a potential witness who could expose her sprawling criminal operation.
The vice that Ma-Ma sells is a futuristic inhalant called Slo-Mo, which alters brain function so that the user perceives everything that happens at one percent of normal speed. That allows for some cool special effects, though otherwise it just works as a reason to pit Ma-Ma against the judges. She takes over the computer systems that control Peach Trees and initiates a lockdown, which closes the building off from the outside world. As the residents cower in their apartments, Ma-Ma’s followers chase Dredd and Anderson through the building’s many levels.
as in the source Dredd wears a large helmet that obscures most of his face, exposing only his mouth, which Urban keeps frowning constantly. the 1995 Judge Dredd The film made concessions to star Sylvester Stallone by allowing him to remove his helmet, but Urban fully commits himself to the character, with his grim and stoic dedication to the law, never removing his helmet.
There is not much of the social satire of the Judge Dredd comics in Dredd, but there’s still some deadpan humor in Urban’s line readings, even in the way he simply says “Yes” to Anderson’s queries. Garland can’t resist cracking a few jokes, though Urban delivers them all with the same low-key growl.
A mutant with psychic abilities that require her to remove her helmet, Anderson ends up bearing the emotional weight of the film, though she is only slightly more demonstrative than her partner. Dredd is skeptical of Anderson at first, ready to put him through a Training Day-trial by fire style, but the two slowly work towards mutual respect, forged by their heartbreaking confrontation with Ma-Ma. Thirlby stands her ground alongside Urban’s commanding presence, and Anderson’s powers make her more superhero-like than Dredd.
There’s enough character development to carry the film forward, but the main draw is the action sequences, which director Pete Travis stages with intensity and clarity. Dredd and Anderson are under almost constant attack, and Travis ramps up the action over the course of the film, highlighted by an impressive sequence in which a hail of bullets wipes out an entire level and murders dozens, all in a futile effort to remove. the two judges. Travis and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle find creative visual approaches to depicting the same space, using deep focus and extreme close-ups to convey a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.
Dredd it wraps itself in just over 90 minutes, leaving room for sequels but also providing a satisfying ending to this particular story. There’s a whole world of Judge Dredd comics that may or may not provide source material for future adaptations, but that’s outside the scope of this movie. It tells a lean, riveting story full of propulsive action, and then it’s over. Other comic book movies should take note.
Dredd airs on Amazon Prime via MovieSphere.