I’m going to get beaten up for this, aren’t I?
The new Dredd certainly sheds some of the problems bedeviling the much maligned Sylvester Stallone version. It nails the title character for starters. Besides never taking off his helmet, Karl Urban perfects the comic book scowl of Mega-City One’s most infamous law man, and indeed conveys a fully realized personality without ever seeming to change expressions. After watching the well-meaning Stallone make so many compromises for the sake of reaching a larger audience, it’s refreshing to see a movie more concerned with getting the character right than appealing to every demographic.
Sadly, that doesn’t quite translate to the remainder of the movie. It pays lip service to Dredd’s universe: a post-apocalyptic America with a single city dominating the entire Eastern Seaboard. Crime is out of control, and only the judges – policemen given the ability to determine guilt and enforce sentencing on the spot – hold the fraying threads of civilization together. Dredd is the baddest of the bad, and he doesn’t much like being saddled with a rookie during her first day on the job. Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) lacks the killer instinct needed on the mean streets, but evinces amazing psychic abilities that the top brass believes will counterbalance her shortcomings. Soon enough, the pair find themselves in a heap of trouble: locked down in a giant block of slums with an army of drug dealers going all-out to take them down.
The filmmakers obviously lack the budget of the Stallone effort, but they do what they can with what they have. They can’t evoke the cartoonish excess of the setting the way Stallone could; at the same time, they work harder to evoke the spirit of the comics with considerably fewer resources. For a time it works: a little rough around the edges, but firmly bolstered by Urban and resolute in making fans of the character happy.
Then somewhere along the way, it gets… not lost exactly, but turned into something more generic. The closed location of a buttoned-up city block helps the budget woes, but also devolves into a fairly milquetoast series of gunfights. Director Pete Travis knows how to lend the mayhem a transgressive feeling – pushing every button he can find in an effort to freak out the squares – and his energy levels are quite high. At the same time, the whole Dreddness of it all starts to fade after a while. It eventually feels like any other shoot-em-up in any other movie, as the set-ups grow repetitive and the pay-offs become more noise than energy. You could replace Dredd with a modern cop or any similar figure, make a few tweaks to the dialogue, and it would all go down more or less exactly the way it does here. Travis rescues it from time to time, particularly in the use of Anderson’s psychic abilities, but the returns slowly diminish the deeper we go.
Perhaps more importantly, Dredd never quite finds the satirical tone that made the comics such a delight. That crazed delirium – the sense that literally anything could happen at any time – can’t fight its way to the surface here. A few early sequences riff on how casually this world treats the loss of life, but Travis misses some real opportunities to tweak, say, the idiocy of people in large groups or the ironic inflexibility of Dredd’s worldview (both prime targets in the comics). We never get a sense of going for broke – that attitude that says “why don’t we make a tyrannosaurus the bad guy this time?” – and the mayhem ultimately starts skating on shock value rather than humor.
It’s a near thing sometimes, and I confess that I actually want it to do well, because I think these filmmakers can make huge strides forward with a more expensive sequel. But too much of Dredd feels too ordinary to justify the name, and once you get past Urban’s magnificent performance, it doesn’t feel much like the Mega-City One we expect. Fans waited twenty years to see their hero done right. I was one of them, and as much as it pains me to say it, this reboot left me a little cold.