Dredd is the latest motion picture adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic book series that began in the mid-’70s. Starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey, the story follows Judge Dredd and rookie Judge Anderson as they investigate a triple homicide inside the crime-riddled high-rise of Peach Trees.
Dredd takes place in a dismal future where society has been crammed into the remaining livable part of the country, a continuous stretch of the northeastern United States now called Mega-City. Single blocks contain what used to be entire towns, dominated by excessive high-rises housing most of the populants. Crime has become anarchic, so much so that the justice system has been whittled down to a massive army of “judge” cops, who patrol and/or mete out justice on the spot: sometimes involving jailing, and sometimes meriting immediate elimination. Dredd is one of the top judges, and has been charged with assessing a rookie judge who has limited experience but unparalleled psychic abilities.
The duo are called out to a high-rise called Peach Trees to investigate a triple homicide. They quickly determine that the deaths are the result of Ma-Ma, a drug lord for the area – capturing an ever-growing clientele of addicts with her “slo-mo” drug, which can exaggerate and slow down a user’s perception of the world to one percent of normal time – and controlling gang leader in Peach Trees.
When the judges take one of her underlings in custody for interrogation, Ma-Ma traps them as well as the entire population of Peach Trees inside as the building goes on total lockdown. From there, Ma-Ma uses her control of the building, her army of thugs and her iron-fist control of the local residents to try to eliminate the judges before any more of her dastardly plans can be unearthed. But apparently Ma-Ma doesn’t quite know who she’s up against. It’s Dredd Time!
Before I go any further, I should probably make clear that I am neither familiar with the Judge Dredd comics nor the previous film version featuring Sylvestor Stallone. I am strictly approaching this new reboot as I would any film, action or otherwise.
The main knocks on Dredd are its poor excuse for a storyline, reliance on nothing but one-note characters and anything but the most inane of dialogue. You might think the filmmakers would have worked on at least one or two of those, but here they decided to put all of their chips down on graphic violence, hoping that the ensuing numbness from non-stop carnage would mask their lackluster attempts in other areas.
Dredd as a character is drawn as tough, mumbly, and someone who eats injustice for breakfast. And that’s his entire backstory. Otherwise it’s implied that he has a mysterious past, but how exactly? “Instead of explaining junk, how about some gunplay?” That seems to be the modus operandi of the entire film, where settings and characters are hastily introduced in order to then move them to the background of gun fights. Dialogue is equally throwaway, with bland quips standing in for dramatic exposition and plot development.
The quick setup of Armstrong, Ma-Ma’s drug operation and the bleakness of Peach Trees is managed in just a few minutes. And past that we’re treated to what is basically the video game version of a movie. Dredd and partner advance floor by floor and take out increasingly more difficult obstacles until they get to the boss level: Ma-Ma. In fact, the film feels very much like a collection of cut-scenes for a very elaborate video game, and that’s hardly a compliment for a feature film.
But if overly visceral action – and lots of it – is what you’re looking for, Dredd delivers. Our main character is not above laying waste to pretty much everyone in order to enact a little bit of justice. His adversaries seem to want to up the torture ante with each “message” they send to those who get in their way and the filmmakers want you to witness each death in stylized fashion. Whether it’s a slo-mo spray of blood and tissue or a rapid pileup of bodies from a chain gun, it would be best not to get too attached to most of the people you see milling around Peach Trees.
As I mentioned before, these are just the opinions of one reviewer who does not have prior experience with the character or the legacy comics series. I would actually hope that those who do might wrest a bit more enjoyment out of it, as perhaps there is some backstory of Dredd as a character or Mega-City as a locale that would fill in some blanks the filmmakers simply couldn’t be bothered with here in their pursuit of body counts. But even if so, that still makes for a poor film, which should be able to stand on its own merits without the aid of extant material. Dredd isn’t completely “dreddful” (wow, I’m already sorry about that one), but its storytelling component is, and leaves this as nothing more than an often visually compelling excuse for otherwise mindless and bloody violence.
Video / 3D
In many ways the visuals are the saving grace of Dredd. Yes, it’s violent and bloody, and gratuitously so. But cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and director Pete Travis at least give the film a stylized edge that frankly puts a pretty nice edge on all the death. And the video presentation here captures it handsomely, bloodstains and all. Detail is mostly sharp except for when it’s purposefully otherwise, as the duo’s fondness for close-ups and shooting through foreground elements creates lots of artistic blur and depth. But the camerawork is very well done, and the encoding here delivers all of the dank interiors and over-the-top drug sequences with impressive clarity. Colors – such as they are in the film – are rendered accurately and the presentation overall is a winner.
The use of 3D in the film is about half effective. Some of the most visually striking scenes are those incorporating extreme slow motion for the “slo-mo” drug sequences, and these are also where the stereoscopic impact is most rewarding. The extra dimensionality that is added to these already hallucinatory scenes makes them almost beautiful in their other-worldly glow; or at least as beautiful as highly stylized violence can be. But elsewhere in the film the use of 3D feels undercooked, with most scenes not feeling that much different from their 2D counterparts. Occasional computer-generated effects layers – such as shards of flying glass, shards of flying concrete or shards of flying people – reveal added depth, but the film as a whole isn’t the most dynamic 3D showcase.
What’s most impressive about the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is how nuanced it is for what is basically a shoot-em-up. Yes, you get some powerful sound from the assault on your senses that is the bevy of carnage, but you also get some great textured sound moments from what are otherwise just segue scenes. Elevator hums, closing doors and the cries of scared villagers (oh, if only this was really Godzilla) are very realistically spaced and create a real sense of claustrophobia in Peach Trees. And there are some excellent musical score moments that are perfectly blended with environment noise for an always-engaging sonic experience. This is simply a standout audio presentation.
The bonus section of the disc contains two primary features, as well as a collection of brief miscellany. The first main feature is “Mega-City Masters: 35 Years of Judge Dredd” (HD, 14:27), where some of the original creators of the comic series chime in on the genesis of the character and his development over time. Next, “Day Of Chaos: The Visual Effects Of Dredd” (HD, 15:21) primarily lets the cinematographer and visual leads discuss the style of this movie adaptation, and how they incorporated elements from the comics series.
The remaining extras are very short clips that almost sound like intros for what could have been more substantive items. “Dredd Featurette” (HD, 1:53), “Dredd’s Gear” (HD, 2:31), “The 3rd Dimension” (HD, 2:00), “Welcome To Peachtrees” (HD, 2:33) all offer glimpses at the production of the film, from 3D filming to style planning, with added comments from actors and the production team. “Dredd Motion Comic Prequel” (HD, 2:57) is more interesting, offering a motion comic setup which is frankly more interesting and in-depth in setting up the main villain of Ma-Ma than what is used in the film. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer (HD, 2:30).
Dredd is a serviceable violent action film, but its ambitions unfortunately stop there. Too little character development and a paper-thin plot that mainly serves to set up a spree of violence hampers what could have been a more interesting experience. However, for those who are already invested in the character/series – or for those who are perfectly fine with a good mindless action film – the Blu-ray presentation is quite nice, even if its 3D presentation is only compelling in spots. Dredd may be more effective as a comic adaptation than its Stallone-clad predecessor, but it’s still a film with too many weak points to win new converts.