In a dystopian future, North America has been reduced to rubble and its survivors crammed into Mega City One: an overcrowded and crime-ridden concrete metropolis, protected only by a law enforcement team known as the ‘Judges’. When one of them, the tempered Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), is tasked to assess rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and her skills, they soon find themselves trapped inside the mega-block “Peach Trees” – home to many poverty-stricken occupants and the unhinged drug leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey).
Stripped right back to its hardened core, Dredd assumes a sombre, yet vehement tone from the start, with an opening sequence that sees our unapologetic hero don his trademark helmet and chase three perps through the dilapidated streets of Mega City One. From here, the mirthless tone becomes unrelenting, only ever broken by the sardonic humour and one-liners screenwriter Alex Garland sprinkles throughout his otherwise sparse and inscrutable script.
Garland’s austere approach and writing style suits the material down to a tee, not only in the way it accurately conveys the depravity that those living within the impenetrable boundaries have come to consider as normal, but also in a way that allows the viewers to feel the determination Dredd and Anderson experience as they’re subjected to Ma-Ma’s myriad of frenzied instruments. This results in an experience that’s unrelenting, and action-packed, yet somewhat lacking in a solid underbelly.
That said, Dredd’s issues are somewhat remedied by Pete Travis’ wild-eyed directorial tenor. For someone so unpracticed (this is his third film), Travis has an eye for production design and special effects like no other. He effectively uses what little money he has to accentuate the details that matter, particularly the desolate landscape and blanket coarse texture of Mega City One and the slum-like interior of Peach Trees. It’s a clever and resourceful attitude to have, particularly for an action film, and means that when the violence comes it’s entirely unrestrained and almost always achieves the necessary impact on its viewers.
Urban settles into Dredd’s ensemble well, bestowing with him a sharp, yet restricted voice, an expectedly callous attitude and powerhouse physicality. His clear devotion to the role and source material means he’s a faultless, even in his tactful, yet ironic delivery of the interspersed one-liners. Thirlby as Anderson is a strong match for Urban’s Dredd, while Headey is outstanding as Ma-Ma, with both overcoming the lack of background details contained within the strict parameters of Garland’s script to nail their respective personalities – one unsure of her strength and the other fully aware of it.
With an aptly pulse-pounding soundtrack that’s reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work on The Social Network, a persuasive persistence firing from every which way and a neat slow-motion trick that plays well into the central narrative, Dredd is able to hit its full stride regardless of a flimsy structure and unsubstantial emotional core. This is a film that takes you immediately by surprise and doesn’t let go until it has thoroughly stimulated your senses and imagination.