'Dredd' Reboot Flickers
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I understand that it cuts no ice with comic book fans for me to try to establish my own bona fides with respect to the graphic form when reviewing movie adaptations thereof. I learned this when I panned the "Thor" movie. Which is still crud, incidentally. So I know that it's no good for me, here, to wax enthusiastic about the "Judge Dredd" comics I enjoyed so much as a young adult that I went so far as to name a cat of mine Tweak in homage to a weird alien character who cropped up in the comic when it was drawn by Brian Bolland.
And in any event, where do I get off finding "Dredd," the film adaptation of the over-the-top dystopic vision of quasi-totalitarian justice, disappointing, when it is substantially better than the really disastrous Sylvester Stallone-starring mangling of the comic, made back in 1995? That's actually the real news here.
Written by canny British novelist Alex Garland and directed by the energetic, bright Pete Travis, this 3-D spectacle "gets" the life-in-hell dynamics of the futuristic North American Mega-City One, the deadpan portrayal of the Manichean judge-jury-executioner system imposed by its Ministry of Justice, the implacable early-Eastwoodian toughness of its ever-masked title character, and more. If it misses the wicked wit of the comic books, well, that's life, and again, this is a far grittier and credible rendering of the original's ethos than the first film, which was made by an entirely different creative team.
Played by Karl Urban, the unshaven, ever-helmeted Dredd is a futuristic iteration of Dirty Harry, dispatching bad guys with hardcore sangfroid and appropriately mordant one-word punch lines. One fine afternoon he's asked to assess a new potential Judge, a fresh-faced recruit named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who's borderline in her tests for Judge-y ruthlessness or whatever it is they test potential Judges for, but has radiation-mutation-created psychic powers that give her that ever-desirable I-know-what-you're-thinking edge in investigations. Whoo-hoo! Together they set off for a crime scene in a skyscraper that's a whole city's worth of slum unto itself, lorded over by super-evil drug manufacturer and dealer Ma-Ma. Ma-Ma, among other things, is the prime mover of a new drug, Slo-Mo, which creates the impression of radically stretched-out time for its users, and this feeling is a pretext both for some pretty impressive camera special effects, and for a couple of not uninteresting plot twists. After apprehending a smug drug-dealer suspect, Dredd and Anderson are trapped in the tower by Ma-Ma, who has terrorized its population to the extent that they bend to her will almost automatically. And her will now is that the two judges ... wait for it ... DIE.
Now, this is all very well and good as far as it goes. The art direction pops, the action is excruciating, and well-beloved-of-indie-fans actress Thirlby acquits herself well in the sci-fi action mode. But for this particular viewer, it all plays out on a thread that's pretty, well, bare. Which is where I suppose my onetime fandom of the comic becomes pertinent: This isn't a bad movie version of "Judge Dredd," but it's also too little too late. Those who aren't so familiar with the source material may feel differently. But if they don't also feel the presence of the myriad post-modern sci-fi clichés that may well have been engendered by the original, and that are in full force here, well, good for them I suppose. I myself felt like I'd seen too much of "Dredd" before.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.