Dredd (2012)

Dredd is one of the most interesting action films to come out of Hollywood. Talking about its influences and similar titles doesn’t convey the film. It’s The Raid: Redemption meets sci-fi pulp with a dose of operatic violence. But it’s weirder than that. There’s something intangibly fascinating about Dredd. If I’m honest, I’m not sure if I think the film is any good, but it’s fascinating and I can’t think of another action film that left me as dumfounded of what to make of it as Dredd.

Dredd’s unique tone is part of what makes it difficult to understand. The film is pulpy, filled with all sorts of dumb, literal terms and cheesy one-liners. However, the film isn’t self-aware for a moment. It plays everything with sincerity. It’s also a pulpy and grimy world, but one that somehow is hauntingly beautiful and, at times, almost operatic.

And on top of it all, it’s a bleak deception of the future that somehow manages to sidestep the feeling of grinding down its audience with its bleakness. It’s engaging, light on its feet, and never feels monotonous or existential.

Part of this relief comes from the presence of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a new recruit who has a psychic ability. She still believes there’s some good in people and isn’t willing to be quite as merciless and quick to leap to judgment as Dredd (Karl Urban). The pair of them get involved in a drug related murder that becomes more when drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) seals them inside a housing complex and sends her men to kill them.

The villains add yet another layer of complication to the film. Ma-Ma is certainly sinister, but in this quiet, almost docile manner. She seems mad, but she never raves. Most of the time, she’s burned out, like she’s only half there. And yet there’s something undeniably captivating about her. She’s scary, but without ever posturing for it. It’s undoubtedly Lena Headey’s performance that makes her memorable and creepy and her performance is defined more by not falling into the clichés of a villainous performance.

The drug being produced by Ma-Ma gives the film a fictional tool to use some cinematic flair. The drug SLO-MO alters the mind’s perception of time, making the user experience everything at a fraction of its normal speed. This gives the film justification for using slow-motion sequences, but these scenes are almost always involved outside of big action moments. There these pensive moments that soaks in an intangible feeling. These sequences feel more art-house than one would expect from a Hollywood action flick.

Dredd also has some interesting character growth. While I don’t have conflicted views on this element, it’s interesting how a film so violent headlines a story with a character that goes out of her way to be nonviolent. If the film has an obvious, glaring flaw, it’s that both Anderson and Dredd’s evolution as characters skip a few beats and jumps to the end point the film doesn’t earn. This might be a holdover from the art-house influences. It’s a film that touches on psychology, but never really explains it, only giving the audience glimpses of characters that clearly have more going on inside their heads than the audience ever sees.

I’m still not sure Dredd a good film. What’s undeniable is that it’s a fascinating film; the unusual tone, disparate elements and alluring visual sequences make it one of the most unusual and interesting Hollywood film I’ve seen in years. For that alone I recommend it because it’s not what you expect and you’ll have something to think about afterwards.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing