|Thirlby and Urban anti-star in Dredd.|
««« Dredd. Written by Alex Garland, based on characters by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra. Directed by Pete Travis.
You'd be excused for thinking the world needs another "Judge Dredd" like it needs another Romney campaign reboot. As you might recall, the dystopian comics hero last reached the big screen in Sly Stallone's instantly forgettable 1995 opus. Indeed, the only thing this writer can remember about that movie was the catchphrase Stallone mumbled before he shot a guy: "I am the law!" That he was, but Stallone's failure kept one of the most long-lived comics heroes off the screen for a generation.
But these days we're more likely to leave a child behind than a superhero franchise. For the new Dredd, the producers have gone in a different direction--this is not a star vehicle at all, but an anti-star vehicle. Karl Urban, who had sizable but not star-making roles in Lord of the Rings and Star Trek (he played the new McCoy) plays the Judge this time out. And surprise--not only is Urban the law, he's also the bomb in director Pete (Vantage Point) Travis' taut, plain vanilla actioner.
The original Dredd came right out of the tradition of 1970's urban angst that also spawned Escape from New York and Robocop in the '80's. He's a cop in the futuristic hellscape of Megacity One, struggling to maintain law and order against a rising tide of crime, drug addiction, and general scumbaggery. There's so much crime, in fact, that there's no time for legal niceties--Dredd is cop, judge, and executioner in one heavily-armored package. A "trial" comprises one question, "How do you plead?", after which Dredd will either blow you away or whisk you off for confinement in a "hypercube". Sounds harsh, but come to think of it, it's actually more due process than a terrorism suspect in Pakistan gets in a drone strike.
On the theory that the best way to challenge a borderline sociopath is to give him a girly-girl to cope with, Dredd receives a rookie partner in "Anderson" (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson has special powers--not to be revealed here--but one of them clearly is not thawing out the grim Judge, who takes little note of her gender or her fragile sort of good looks. Extrajudicial killings are one thing, but Dredd draws the line at off-color remarks in the workplace.
The Judge is troubled by another woman too, an ex-prostitute turned drug kingpin named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Headey was Queen Gorgo in 300 and Queen Cercei in Game of Thrones, but she does not rule here. Though the filmmakers give her a nasty facial scar, and she makes a go at seeming freakish, she's just not scary enough to be a compelling villain. Nor does Alex Garland's script help with all its logical lapses--such as Dredd seeking evidence to bust Ma-Ma after she's already given him ample probable cause by, you know, trying to kill him.
What makes this movie work is Urban himself. Though he never removes his helmet in the entire film, he seems to pack more expression into the lower half of his face than Stallone managed with his entire jacked physique. There are no cute catchphrases here, no superstar preening. Urban accomplishes what Peter Weller did in the original Robocop with even less than a whole disembodied face to work with. This may be the best performance by a chin in movie history. In the tradition of rock-hard performances by the likes of Wayne and Eastwood and Craig's 007, Urban earns his place.
This Dredd is what it is, and that's no more than it needs to be. In an era of baroque, overblown creations like The Dark Knight Rising, there's virtue in this kind of simplicity.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro