Karl Urban keeps his handsome mug under wraps for the duration of Dredd, offering a fixed, gruff performance from within the confines of that boss helmet. He plays Judge Dredd in director Pete Travis' film, based on the 2000 AD comic book and presumably not on the Cannon/Stallone joint of '95.
Dredd takes place in the postatomic future, and the future sucks. The planet has been wrecked by nuclear war and citizens live in sprawling, vertical megacities called blocks. Dredd is a judge, one of the policing force of the megacities who act as every branch of the criminal justice system. Judges patrol the urban sprawl on wicked fast motorcycles, meting out swift bullet justice to criminals on the fly.
As is customary in all police fiction, Dredd's assigned a rookie partner in training named Anderson, played by a prettily solemn Olivia Thirlby. Anderson failed the judge training system, but she's got a special capacity for justice-meting in the form of a nuclear mutation that allows her to read minds.
Anderson and Dredd are assigned to the biggest, baddest block around - the Peach Trees. The Peach Trees are run by a crime boss by the name of Ma-Ma, who is the lead dealer of a lethal new drug called Slo-Mo. Once Anderson and Dredd enter the Peach Trees, Ma-Ma calls the block citizens to arms, demanding that they kill Anderson and Dredd before they can reach her lair at the top. So yes, sure, this is all very much like The Raid. But it's a fun conceit and it works, and of course the execution is different enough to preclude too much indignation on that score.
Now that the stage has been set, Dredd leaves plenty of room for righteous action and some of the most imaginative kills I've seen in years. The deaths are entirely, gloriously rad, the sort of gleeful violence that elicits spontaneous cheers in the audience. The drug Slo-Mo causes users to experience the passing of time at only 1% speed, and that allows for some very pretty exploding blood sequences. The film is tight and funny, barrelling along at a nifty pace while briefly pausing for plenty of laughs, most of which are summoned by Urban's tight, monosyllabic delivery - although Thirlby gets some good ones in, too.
The Wire's Wood Harris gives a nicely sinister performance as Kay, a criminal under Dredd and Anderson's jurisdiction, and we get some fine play out of the remainder of the supporting cast. But the true gem of Dredd, beyond all the bitchin' gore, is Lena Headey's Ma-Ma. Scarred and rigid, nonchalantly wicked, Headey is powerful here, although too rarely used.
Dredd is plenty silly with more than enough eye-rolling moments to give you a headache, and it certainly never takes the time to examine the potential ramifications of a split second justice system that trusts the apprehending, adjudicating and executing all to one fallible human. But there's something to be said for Dredd's not taking itself too seriously, and if you do the same, you'll have a ball watching it.
Stay tuned for my interview with Dredd's Karl Urban later this week.