The unpromising combination of shallowness and style make for compelling viewing in Dredd, Peter Travis’ hardnosed adaptation of the long running comic book series portraying a hard-line future lawman. Previously better known for a failed 1995 Sly Stallone vehicle, this new version is scripted by author Alex Garland (rumoured to have taken over the film in is final stages), and suffers none of the earlier Dredd’s stodgy impotence. A blend of bloody action, vengeful certainty and trippy visuals that lies much closer to its source material, it is in many ways the opposite of the moral knottiness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Yet through a kind of streamlined tautness, as well as a charismatic lead performance from Karl Urban, it stacks up well against recent, more self-important blockbusters.
After a perfunctory voiceover detailing a ‘cursed earth’ America created by an unnamed (presumably nuclear) catastrophe, Judge Dredd is introduced via the hulking, monolithic Hall of Justice, an organisation ‘fighting for order in the chaos’. Mercilessly hunting down a pack of drug-addled criminals in early scenes, Dredd’s beat is the moody, minimally realised and believable metropolis Mega-City One, a city that supposedly links what used to be Washington DC and Boston, but is actually closer to LA or Chicago in its network of grimy underpasses and hulking tower blocks.
The plot, such as it is, sees Dredd forced to babysit failing rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Considered a ‘mutant’ due to her psychic powers, her idealism is the antithesis of Urban’s Dirty Harry-esque approach to justice, a balance that predictably becomes beneficial when they are thrust into the den of the city’s major drug ring. Housed within a tower block ironically going by the name of Peach Trees, its villain is the sadistically violent Ma-Ma (Game of Throne’s icy Lena Headey, clearly having a whale of a time), and the resulting action is never less than an entertaining, unapologetically adult vision of future law enforcement.
Travis’ real coup proves to be the presence of the time-altering narcotic Slo-Mo. Dragging time to a virtual standstill, it allows for some striking and often hallucinatory sequences, brilliantly bookending Ma Ma’s involvement and otherwise offering an outlet for the inventive visual style Travis first displayed in the underrated Vantage Point. Urban, meanwhile, is clearly channelling Clint Eastwood, and makes for a charismatic and rootable hero despite never removing his helmet. It’s all good, grisly fun, and as Dredd draws to a close with an inevitable setup for a second instalment, what emerges is a stylish film that celebrates and occasionally transcends its B-Movie origins.