Often overlooked among the best comic book adaptations, Dredd unfolds in a dystopian alternate timeline with Karl Urban in the titular role as an authoritarian police officer able to judge, sentence, and execute perpetrators on the spot. A routine call sends him and his rookie partner to a 200-story housing block where they find themselves trapped and under siege from a murderous drug gang.
Shot for 3-D, the film plays fine without the effect save a few sequences. The story features an inhaled drug called Slo-Mo that induces a sense of euphoria while slowing the user’s perception of time. Upon inhaling the drug, everything slows to a crawl, with things like smoke vapor and water droplets creeping through the air. These point-of-view shots bear the force perspective indicative of 3-D processing, but the drug, and its effect, prove central to the story and thus prevent the sequences from feeling gratuitous.
3-D aside, the film ages well. Alex Garland’s script plays like RoboCop meets The Raid, delivering sly satire beneath an action veneer. Dredd’s draconian on-the-spot sentencing for crimes like vagrancy evokes RoboCop’s emotionless dispensation of justice, while the plot’s setup of Dredd and his partner locked in a tower, facing horde-like waves of gang members on their ascent to the top, feels almost stolen from The Raid, which sees a group of police officers raid an apartment block only to find themselves trapped inside under siege by hordes of gang members.
But Garland’s deftest touch lies in how he eschews certain tropes while embracing others. Rather than have Dredd face off against a comic-book super villain, Garland crafts a chilling gang-leader antagonist whose only superpower is her murderous rage. Instead of setting the action in an exotic sci-fi locale, he places it in a rundown housing project. These choices ground the film in a relatable world, forcing the audience into the uncomfortable position of rooting for an authoritarian figure.
The plot hits familiar beats, but Garland resists the temptation to “go big” with the story. There’s no secret connection between Dredd and the gang boss, or between Dredd and his partner. Garland affords Dredd only a minor arc involving his growing admiration for his rookie partner, whose trial-by-fire sees her disabused of her idealistic notions. This commitment to keeping the story self-contained lends a procedural, “another day on the job” feeling to the proceedings that adds to the dark satire given the copious violence.
And about that violence. People plummet 200 stories to crack and splatter on the concrete courtyard. Dredd’s pistol emits not just bullets, but incendiary and explosive projectiles, all of which he utilizes to gruesome effect. Not to be outdone, in a visceral sequence the gang utilize rotary cannons, unleashing a torrent of bullets as Dredd and his partner scramble for cover as the bullets shred residents as well as concrete. The scene serves double-duty as black satire, thrilling us with the murder of dozens—if not hundreds—of innocents.
Urban shines in the titular role. In keeping with the source material, we never see his face. Instead, he delivers a full performance clad in a cowl-like helmet that only exposes his mouth, which he holds in a perpetual mix of sneer and grimace. Still, between his mouth and body language, we sense a coiled rage tempered by an incorruptible core.
Indeed, Dredd remains one of the best comic book adaptations. In this age of multiverses and extended universes, its self-contained nature proves refreshing. Action movie fans will enjoy the visceral thrills, comic fans will admire the respect for the source material, and fans of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop and Starship Troopers will appreciate the mix of action and satire.