Karl Urban’s mouth kills a bunch of people: “Dredd”

September 22, 2012

I knew there was no way that 2012’s Dredd would surpass the pleasure of 1995’s Judge Dredd, mainly because it’s pretty much impossible to make a movie stupider than that one without just running 100 minutes of monkey flinging their scat at one another. Newsflash: Dredd will not be displacing Judge Dredd in the special place I have in my heart where I keep the love for awesomely-terrible movies (it’s the place where normal people keep their love of children). Instead, Dredd has a special place in my heart where I keep my love of misanthropic, brutal, vaguely-fascist movies. Because, hey, Dirty Harry came out almost 40 years ago. We were due for a new ass-kicking lawman, and on that scale Dredd sure as hell doesn’t disappoint.

I’m not gonna recap the universe of Judge Dredd—MegaCities, Cursed Earth, Judges, yadda yadda—I’m just gonna dive right in. Dredd (Karl Urban’s mouth) is partnered with a fairly-weak rookie named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby with a bad dye job), who flunked basic training, but was given a probationary pass on account of the fact she’s psychic as hell. We dive right into the plot as Dredd and Anderson investigate a triple homicide in a massive MegaTower (there are more Megas in this movie than Megaforce). Seems easy enough. Only problem is, the dead guys were rivals of the drug-dealing matriarch Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, whose teeth get progressively worse as the film goes on).

What? You’re not psychic enough to know your eyebrows don’t match your hair?

Dredd and Anderson nab the killer handily enough, but it turns out he’s one of Ma-Ma’s lieutenants who has the goods on her whole drug-manufacturing operation. Well, faster than you can The Raid: Redemption, Ma-Ma locks the building down and sends her henchmen after the two judges. Unable to get out or call for backup, Dredd and Anderson instead have to fight their way up to Ma-Ma. And fight they do. Holy crap.

So yeah, that’s the plot. Let’s talk about the rest of the movie. It’s pretty awesome. The action, as directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point), is solid and fairly convincing, with only occasional forays into pretension when the action slows down to super slow motion (the drug of choice in the movie is actually called Slo-Mo and makes time feel as if it’s passing at one-thousands of real time—presumably it’s harvested from Zack Snyder’s cortex). Still, Travis keeps the gunplay and fisticuffs grounded in reality without any wire-fu or gun-kata or any other stuff that would break the gritty tone of the movie.

Two other things this film doesn’t have: Stallone and Stallone’s codpiece.

As Dredd and Anderson, neither Urban nor Thirlby have any real heavy lifting to do. Urban is saddled with the permanently-fixed helmet (a major sticking point with Dredd fans), so he’s somewhat hamstrung, but still manages to imbue Dredd’s frowny-emoticon of a mouth with something close to personality—or as close as comic-character Dredd ever came. As Ma-Ma, Headey nails the kingpin’s quiet menace and deep reservoirs violence lingering under the surface.

She’s even sexier with a minigun.

Judge Dredd fans—like Dark Shadows fans—are sort of like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot to me. There’s a lot of evidence of their existence—comics, web sites, etc.–but I’ve never actually seen one. Still, they must exist, since Hollywood has now pumped money into two treatments of the character. I’m not sure what they make of Dredd or what he represents to British society. Is he a parody of America’s tendency to conflate movie-cops and fascism? Is he a reaction to the perceived breakdown of British society? I can’t hazard a guess, and given the longevity of the character (35 years and going strong), maybe there is no single answer.

Whatever the case, Dredd sidesteps any real cultural analysis. We’re presented with a lawless society and a ruthless, largely ineffectual police force. While Paul Verhoevan took these elements and made Robocop–a veritable Pandora’s Box of late ‘80s social commentary–Dredd just gives us pure fascist entertainment. Still, as I mentioned in the intro, Dirty Harry did the same thing and that film became iconic. Dredd ain’t ever gonna be iconic—sorry to burst that bubble—but it hits the same pleasure-centers, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The star of the film

Bottom line: Dredd should wash the lingering 17 year-old taste of Stallone out of action fans’ collective mouths (I imagine it taste likes ego and HGH-sweat). It’s also a gritty, nasty, effective action flick. We could do a lot worse.

Other notes:

* Let’s get this out of the way: MegaCity One sucks. Cape Town is a poor basis for a futuristic dystopia, and not for a moment does it seem overpopulated enough to contain roughly 3/4s of the population of China. Hell, even traffic flows along nicely.

Behold the wasteland of the future!

* That said, the Peach Trees MegaTenament is a good rendering of a blighted vertical slum. It’s like a housing project building from hell.

* The minigun-assault scene is a genuine show-stopper.

* What is it about Lena Headey that I her find amazingly hot, even with a carved-up face, weird tattoos, and bad teeth? She doesn’t even have an accent in this movie.

* Conserving ammo is an issue in this movie. Good for them.

* It also shows collateral damage (though not thoroughly enough for my tastes).

* Future installments plan to expand the scope of this universe. Here’s hoping this movie does well enough that we see them.


  1. I actually got a college professor (undergrad) to watch the original Judge Dredd and discuss it in class during my freshman year at college. To date, that is the best thing I have ever accomplished. I can’t wait to see this movie.

    • I would have loved to be in class during that discussion…

  2. Lena Headley is sexy to the bone somehow.

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