Contemporary mainstream action cinema is hurting. From the redundant stunt-casting of “The Expendables” franchise to the thirty-years-too-late Cold War thriller-aping antics of “Salt,” the genre has succumbed to the run-of-the-mill. But “Dredd” exists in direct opposition to this string of mediocrity. While there are other exceptions to the rule like “The Raid” (which bears more than a passing resemblance to “Dredd”) and the recent installments in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, this is an especially heartening reminder that an action movie can still be a white-knuckled display of hyper macho-violence choreographed into a quieting meditation on blood, metal, and the fragility of human bone. “Dredd” gives the action genre a much-needed shot in the arm.
The movie centers on its titular lawman, played by Karl Urban, who is part of a unit with members known as “judges” who act as judge, jury, and executioner for the criminals of the futuristic Mega-City One, the last holdout of human civilization in an irradiated America, home to 800 million citizens. Urban takes the character, who originated in a 1977 British comic and was previously played tackily and lethargically by Sylvester Stallone in 1995’s “Judge Dredd,” and imbues him with all the stern menace and cold dedication to justice that the role demands. Urban’s work is especially impressive seeing as he must convey the totality of Dredd with merely his lips and chin (as his face is covered by his judge’s helmet), plus grunts and the straining of his leather uniform. Urban takes the character of Dredd, one who could easily be lost in conservative caricature, and lends him all the gravely dignity he requires.
“Dredd” does not waste the gift that is Urban’s commitment to the serious nature of the material; this is a movie that understands that the soul of brutality is efficiency. The film runs a lean 90 minutes, never stopping to give us exposition or backstory, choosing to instead inform the audience of only the most vital information in transit. Dredd is chosen to supervise a rookie judge (Olivia Thirlby) and the pair rapidly get caught up in a wholly devastating battle with drug-lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) in the 200-story building she controls. What follows is an exhilarating series of shootouts and tactical takedowns. Henchmen become corpses as swiftly as a trigger can be pulled. The camera follows the judges through all the squalor and darkness with surprisingly clarity as they dispatch of dozens upon dozens of lackeys in sequences that more than qualify the film for its R-rating.
Even when dealing with these massacres, “Dredd” adheres to its ethos of efficiency, never taking the characters through overlong subplots or slow treks that try to contextualize the violence and the situation. Instead, expert production design constructs each frame with dripping and oozing veneer, subverting apocalyptic clichés and giving the action all the context and agency it requires. Floors are never revisited once they are conquered, and each new level feels distinct enough from the others to add to the already bullet-like propulsion of the plot.
Apart from giving new life to the action genre, “Dredd” also helps to enliven the stagnating sub-genre of gritty comic book films. Movie adaptations of comic books that center on darker, more harrowing material than the normal spandex-clad Boy Scout heroics have a long history of suffering from misguided creative decisions and a lack of commitment to their premises. “Spawn,” based on the Todd McFarlane comic of the same name, took a soldier of hell and turned his narrative into a rubbery camp-fest; the “Ghost Rider” movies took a similar concept and let the bad Nicholas Cage shout a bunch in the midst of agonizing CG effects, instead of letting the good Nicholas Cage turn into brooding brimstone warrior. Some critics suspected disappointments such as these were products of a PG-13 rating, a theory that is quickly dashed by two R-rated “Punisher” movies, one terrible (“Punisher”) and one not terrible but still highly problematic (“Punisher: War Zone”). And don’t even get me started on the malignant mess that is “Tank Girl.” “Dredd” strikes the perfect balance between adhering to the source material and going balls-deep into the gore and nastiness needed to make the film seem credible.
While not every facet of the film works—the quieter character moments are more suited to a “Dredd” mini-series that has the time to investigate these people and their world, while the CG effects range from above-average to lacking—the overall product is rousingly fun. And fun is what has been missing from the action movie as of late. “Dredd” is bloody, relentless, energetic entertainment. The action is the main attraction here, not some sideshow to help sell tickets to a political message like “Elysium” or a repetitive drag like “Unknown.” How gratifying that “Dredd,” the scarred and feverish adult pulp tale that has boomed so well in the panels of comics, has finally been made into a proper action flick.