The Simple Pleasures of Dredd

Let’s get it out of the way: yes, there are plenty of new movies I could be talking about instead of this, but I’m playing catch-up right now so bear with me. But even if I was up-to-date on my new releases, I would probably still feel compelled to write up a movie that merges economic, smart storytelling, and bloody, stylish ultraviolence. The 2012 film Dredd merges the two quite well indeed, and after a second viewing I feel I can say its probably one of the best pure action films of recent years as a result. It’s an engaging little genre film that makes the most of its scifi trappings without overplaying its hand, which far too many similar movies do nowadays. Even if it didn’t have the surprisingly gorgeous visuals and strong performances, I would appreciate Dredd just for how matter-of-fact it is throughout the story.

The concept of Judge Dredd is actually kind of ideal for the usually amoral violence and pseudo-fascism of action movies. Usually the big knock on the action genre is the wanton destruction and cops ignoring things like due process and Miranda rights, but in the world of Mega City One that is no longer a problem, as “Judges” are now empowered to sentence and potentially execute criminals on the spot. It could be argued that this gives the film a slight air of satire (or at least the potential for one), but thankfully Alex Garland and Pete Travis don’t overplay that hand. Instead, they focus on just telling a simple Training Day-esque cop story that happens to take place in this obscurely totalitarian future. And in a genre blockbuster world that is increasingly obsessed with world-sized threats and massive, city-destroying battles, having a movie like this play it so low-key is very refreshing.

One of the great beauties of this movie is how tight the script is, how every little thing informs the overall film, and how none of the characters feel empty or useless to the plot. Even what would probably be cosmetic choices are given explanation, such as Judge Anderson not wearing her helmet; realistically it’s so the audience can distinguish between her and Dredd, but it’s still explained rationally (the helmet interferes with her psychic ability). There isn’t a wasted beat or frivolous moment, and the film is able to steadily ratchet up the tension and danger with perfect pacing.

The tight, focused plot also makes it easier to build strong characters, and Dredd accomplishes this with ease. Anderson is the best one, who goes from being the shaky and idealistic rookie to an assured badass… who still sticks to her idealism in the end, and doesn’t back down from Dredd when he challenges her. She doesn’t even need to be saved by Dredd when she’s captured late in the film; in fact, she saves him later on. The fact that so much is done with her character when she isn’t even the lead just shows how well-crafted the script is; and casting indie darling Olivia Thirlby in the role only serves the character having her own distinct voice. Dredd himself is of course the faceless, taciturn avatar of The Law, and Karl Urban embodies that perfectly; despite not really having an arc, he’s still a compelling presence, a force of nature throughout. And then there’s Ma Ma, played with savage glee by Lena Headey, a villain that’s cruel, sadistic, and smart, without being the sort of egotistical showoff that many villains tend to be.

Watching movies like Dredd tends to bring out the script geek in me, the guy who appreciates a good bit of narrative craftsmanship. And while Dredd might not have the same amount of hidden layers of commentary and thematics that other favorite high-concept movies of mine have (Se7en, The Grey) it does remind me of the idea that less is more and that keeping it simple can oftentimes lead to some of the most engaging and satisfying results. Many movies try and do too much on a narrative, structural level, and the end result is that not only does the story make less sense (or function more poorly) but it makes it harder for the character or thematic elements to take root as well. The beauty of Dredd, and movies like it, is that the lack of clutter and the street-level scope allows it to do a lot more with less, to impressive result.

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