Set in a dystopian, crime-ridden future, Mega-City One is populated by 800 million people and runs all the way along the east coast of the United States, walled off from the “Cursed Earth”. In a Raid-esque run to the top of the poverty-struck Peach Trees megastructure, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are being hunted by scarred, former prostitute turned drug baroness Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), the sole distributor of the new, addictive drug “Slo-Mo”.
In a year filled with the easy fun of The Avengers and the romance of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises has been the only comic book adaptation to so far pack any sort of punch. Dredd, however, is an unflinching, hyper-violent film which shares more in its DNA with other comic/graphic novel adaptations like V For Vendetta and Watchmen, merging grit and visual flair in a giddy mix. Gotham City under Bane’s revolutionary rule feels like a tea party when you sweep across Mark Digby’s eye-boggling production design and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s industrial, distorted score.
Inspired by the earliest 2000AD comics, and stepping away from the camp fiasco of the 1995’s Judge Dredd, this realism is what shapes the film and pitches it far above its weaker predecessor and what makes the violence all the more hard-hitting and the flawed, angered Dredd all the more appealing. Urban embodies the titular judge and his physicality with force; snarling and scowling whilst never once lifting his helmet as the hard as nails Judge. It is Anderson, however, who quickly emerges as the heart of the film; she kills with feeling where he does not. Headey (Game of Thrones‘ Cersei Lannister) makes a ferocious turn as the calm but ruthless clan leader, Ma-Ma.
The only fantastical outreaches in the film are Anderson’s mutated psychic powers and the illegal drug “Slo-Mo”, which, as the name suggests, slows down real time to just 1% speed for the user. In these sequences, Anthony Dod Mantle’s 3D photography are glowing and glittering, and luckily do not feel overused. The extra few quid I had to shovel out for the honour of donning some 3D glasses certainly felt worthwhile in the narcotic-induced and blood-splatter scenes (although quite often it was a mix of both!).
If you’re one of the few who may have caught the release of The Raid earlier this year (an Indonesian film to which many drew early comparisons), here director Pete Travis does not quite manage to capture the levity of menace and urgency that Gareth Evans did as the two judges brawl their way up the 200-storey slum. Garland’s script is lean and tightly-wound though, and with a running time of only 1 hour and 35 minutes, he rarely lets the plot slack. But this also means they are great opportunites missed, including themes of corruption and the power of the state which are barely touched upon. Many, as when some of the 80s comics were written, will certainly still feel a political unease at Dredd’s role in an effectively fascist system.
When Dredd comments early on that they’re only enough Judges in Mega City-One to respond to 6% of the crimes reported, you believe him. You’re left with the feeling leaving the cinema that you’ve only experienced an ordinary day in the life of Dredd, and wonder if Lionsgate will have the guts enough to allow the city and its population to have its day again.