Grit, for lack of a better word, is good. This at least seems to be the prevailing wisdom when it comes to action movies. But is gritty good enough? Pete Travis‘ Dredd seems to think so. The director has designed a down-and-dirty future where nothing shines, everything is grimy, and life is cheap. Into this world he throws a memorable albeit simple protagonist whose very voice emanates ugly violence and wholesale slaughter. Dredd swings between a single-minded drive to use your adrenal gland like a chew toy and a one-dimensional ploy to play into a shallow bloodlust. What it lacks in claustrophobia, a compelling plot, dangerous stakes, and a compelling antagonist, it makes up for with loud noises, blown-apart bodies, and a killer performance from Karl Urban.
In the post-apocalyptic Mega-City One, the law is handled by Judges. Masked by heavy helmets and heavier armor, they are judge, jury, and executioner. They are cold, merciless, efficient, and Judge Dredd (Urban) is probably the best one working the harsh streets. He’s forced to play evaluator to rookie Judge, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who isn’t skilled in the ways of murdering criminals, but makes up for it in psychic powers. Like the world’s most dangerous DMV employee, Dredd takes Anderson out on a road test to see if she has what it takes to be a judge. Both of their skills are tested when they become trapped in the Peach Trees tower and the target of the building’s ruthless druglord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who is manufacturing the hottest drug on the streets, Slo-Mo. Slo-mo gives the sensation that time “is running at 1% speed”, and provides Travis an excuse to run a faster frame-rate like he’s doing a camera test.
Once Dredd and Anderson become trapped in the Peach Trees, there’s not much more room for plot development. It never feels like the two are in any actual danger, and the only ones at the mercy of Ma-Ma’s gang are the building’s innocent, law-abiding citizens. The Judges don’t seem too bothered by the civilians getting mowed down around them, which speaks to the film’s moral principal: Dredd isn’t about life. It’s about death. The faceless thugs are no match for Dredd’s experience (and super gun that has all kinds of fun ammunition) and Cassandra has a singular survival skill, so we don’t have to become invested in their fates. Thugs exist to be killed, Judges exist to do the killing.
For Travis, the memorable moments come from Dredd’s personality and the action scenes. But when you bank your entire movie on the action, you have to be certain that the action always works. To his credit, Travis uses the Slo-Mo sparingly, and uses it to great effect in one of the bloody gunfights. I admire his willingness to mix up his set pieces, but some fall completely flat. His greatest moments come when he’s willing to balance character moments with the violence. We may not be worried about Dredd and Cassandra, but the actors make us cheer for them. But when Ma-Ma is firing three chain guns at Dredd, it’s just loud noises, spastic extras getting riddled by bullets, spewing CGI blood, and Dredd running away from gunfire. It comes back to how we know these characters are never in danger, so watching them play defensive never comes off as particularly interesting.
It’s when Dredd and Cassandra are offense that the movie comes alive. The movie isn’t about passive survival. It’s about fighting to the death, namely the death of Ma-Ma’s army of thugs. Setting Dredd loose gives Urban time to shine and prove to the audience that this is a character worthy of his own franchise. Dredd never removes his bulky helmet, so Urban has to work with only the lower half of his face and the inflection in his voice. He does it wonderfully. The character easily transitions from wry to sardonic to serious to authoritative to protective to weary. It’s all the ingredients we want from an old-fashioned bad-ass, and Urban cooks them into to a terrific action hero.
As for his supporting cast, the movie attempts to provide the veneer of female empowerment. Thirbly carries what little heart the film has, and provides the story’s only developing character. Sadly, the movie falls short when it comes to Ma-Ma. Headey is a talented actress, but her only duty in Dredd is to look creepy. She has no female lieutenants, and while she doesn’t use sexuality as a weapon, she doesn’t really seem to have any weapons other than cannon-fodder and a total disregard for human life. She’s a boss, but not much of a villain.
But Ma-Ma can exist as long as she’s part of Dredd‘s filthy stew of bloodshed. Her visage is perfectly in tune with the film’s ethos: she’s got ugly scars, and a murderous glare. Travis wants to make a gritty movie and Dredd fits the bill. There’s just enough futuristic touches to make the film feel more than generic, but Dredd almost seems to take comfort in the familiar. Travis doesn’t provide the bare minimum, but the bare medium. There’s enough to occasionally get the blood pumping and the audience cheering for the thrill kills, but the film’s lack of ambition leaves only its eponymous anti-hero as the element that’s more than grit.
For more on Dredd, here’s the first red band clip.