Typically, the creators of comic book adaptations assume that ingratiating themselves to anyone unfamiliar with their characters/properties demands boilerplate origin stories where protagonists exhaustively declare who they are in no uncertain terms. This is, thankfully, not true of Dredd, whose creators have the confidence to treat their narrative like just another episode of their antihero’s serialized adventures. Scripted by novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, Never Let Me Go) and directed by Pete Travis (the execrable Vantage Point), Dredd is proudly degenerate—and it never feels compelled to slow down and explain itself.
The most popular character from proudly pulpy British comics publisher 2000 AD, Judge Dredd is something of a symbol for wise-ass irreverence among the relatively austere, superhero-heavy landscape. He’s a monster who readers root for simply because watching a super-cop with no sense of human empathy terrorize hapless crooks is subversively funny. But Dredd succeeds where the 1995 Stallone vehicle failed because Travis and Garland don’t get hung up on replicating the comics’ broad sense of humor. Here, Judge Joe Dredd (Karl Urban), a cruel lawman whose job allows him to be “judge, jury, and executioner,” is trapped in a tenement by drug-dealing sadists and must shoot his way out. There are numerous scenes of ghoulishly exaggerated violence, as when a pair of blast doors crash down upon a hapless hobo. But unlike Robocop, a film that many of the best Dredd comic stories are indebted to, Dredd is played straight. And that can be pretty funny.
From the distance provided by introductory helicopter shots of the city, the futuristic metropolitan slum of Mega-City One looks fairly staid by the dystopian standards set by Blade Runner, among others. Urban’s Dredd is likewise not a Schwarzenegger-size goon nor even a Stallone-size guy. (His all-purpose scowl is pretty impressive, though his monotone voice suggests Val Kilmer’s Batman.) When he shoots a hostage-taking thug in the mouth with a phosphorus bullet called a “Hotshot,” it’s effectively jarring.
Dredd‘s real staying power comes from its creators’ abject refusal to spell things out. Dredd is a man of few words, so Garland makes the ones he has count, especially in his scenes with Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), his idealistic rookie partner. Still, scenes replicating the effect of slo-mo, a sense-enhancing drug peddled by slum lord Ma-Ma (the winning Lena Headey), show more clearly than any of the film’s ingratiatingly direct dialogue and compelling characterizations just why we root for Urban’s more-bad-than-good guy. As bullets rip through flesh, and bodies fall through the air accompanied by sparks of light and tinkling glass, Travis allows us to revel in amoral spectacle. Yes, it’s bad for you, but that’s what makes Dredd the hero the comic book film needs now, most of all.