Random thoughts on yet another movie. I’m a simple man; I long ago gave up any pretense of being particularly smart or perceptive. Most of my political opinions are borrowed and I lose every argument I engage in out of an apathetic lack of passion. Yet, even I am moved to opinions, mostly about low-calorie entertainments where the bar for critical mining isn’t too high. So: Dredd, starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby.
I am not a fan of the Judge Dredd comics. In fact, I am only tangentially aware of the character Judge Dredd, and most of the information I know about it comes from the truly awful Sylvester Stallone film from the 1990s. Though how that can be is a mystery because I will never admit to having seen it. Moving on.
So, I don’t know shit about Judge Dredd. Due to some interesting reviews, I took a flyer on the reboot starring Karl Urban as The Chin a.k.a Judge Dredd. And damn if it wasn’t a pretty good movie. Is it a good Dredd movie? I have no fucking idea, knowing nothing about the comics. But as a straightforward sci-fi action flick, it was surprisingly good. Of course, there’s a certain amount of low expectations going on here. I didn’t go in expecting something great, and was pleasantly surprised. But there are some lessons here, I think.
Dredd works because of three key decisions the filmmakers make:
1. There’s very little exposition. They not only say fuckit to the origin story and drop us in a universe where Judge Dredd is already well-established, they also barely bother to set anything up, and this is a good thing. A few lines of expo drop like metal weights at the very beginning (voiceover, and my toes curled in horror, but it’s just two lines and then it’s done) and a few more as they introduce two other characters, but that’s it. The exposition is really minimal, which is such a fucking relief.
2. The plot is really simple. And I mean, simple. Unlike a lot of other sci-fi films that seem to enjoy cramming a lot of truly superfluous plot into ninety minutes, Dredd is lean and mean. They cut that sumbitch down to a straight line, so much so that I can give you the plot in one sentence: Dredd and a rookie Judge respond to a routine homicide at a huge, dilapidated housing tower ruled by a vicious drug lord and must fight their way out when they are trapped inside. That’s it. It might sound dull, but the reductive quality of that straight-line plotting works.
3. The Rookie was a good idea. It’s a cliche to have the grizzled veteran paired with the fresh-faced rookie for a reason: It works. This allows Dredd to flesh out the characters, the nature of the world and the nature of the Judges in an organic way. It also allows the character of Dredd, who’s pretty grim and boring on his own, honestly, to have someone to play off of.
So, a masterpiece? Not at all. A fun way to spend $1.99 on a weeknight? Sure, why the hell not. Karl Urban never once takes the helmet off, and I liked that, and the man does more acting with his chin than you might suspect. Lena Headly as the villain is cold and underplayed, which works well, though she has almost zero dimension. But it’s a lot better than the scenery-chewing a lot of actors would have brought to the role of a murderous drug lord hell bent on killing two Judges trapped in her building.
The effects – I heard a lot about the effects in this movie. I didn’t think much of them, good or bad — they were just there, really. There were, however, a few shots that I thought were kind of cool, including the final shot of Headley’s MaMa coming to her grisly end – it was gruesome and somehow beautiful all at the same time.