Trigger warning on this review for brief mentions of sexual assault. Trigger warning on the movie for out-of-focus and brief but graphic imagery of sexual assault.
Dredd is a film that I could enjoy, as entertainment, in part because I'm not likely to be a target of police brutality. Others may not have that privilege.
Need more details? No problem. Here we go.
Dredd is a post-apocalyptic fascist future where we've finally dispensed with those pesky "trials" and that bothersome "evidence" that's been bogging us down for so long. Instead, we've given "Judges" the legal right to imprison or execute any citizen they feel is guilty of a crime. Usually when action movies show a police state that executes people at will, the heroic main character is resisting and trying to destroy it. In Dredd, Judge Dredd and his female trainee Judge Anderson are its agents.
If you think about most action movies too closely, many of them are built on the audience granting the main character(s) moral authority to torture, imprison, and execute other characters because the bad guys are bad. In Dredd, they kick it up a notch.
Now to me, this film's Mega-City One (and the comic it's based on) is a dystopia, not a fantasy. The Judges have been put in place because society flat-out broke. It's terrifying, and that includes the actions of the main characters. Sadly, there are plenty of people who probably would watch this and think "Yeah, why don't we do this?" To find a fantasy like this preferable to real life, you have to believe that:
- The police never make a mistake and you'll never commit a crime yourself (or look like you're committing one). That's a delusion a lot of people seem to share. "I'm a good person, those criminals are the bad people, we're totally different, this could never backfire on me!"
- You'll never get caught in the crossfire of the police executing a criminal (though the collateral damage in the film would argue otherwise.)
- It's totally fine to kill people without a trial.
The U.S. Constitution isn't on their side, and I don't think Dredd is either. It does clumsily try to make its depiction of poverty and crime somewhat realistic. Most of the people living in the poor neighborhoods of Mega City One are just trying to get through the day, and both they and the folks who commit crimes come in all colors. Corrupt Judges are explicitly framed as a problem because they hurt the people in vulnerable communities. By the end of the film, Judge Anderson has even managed to learn that sometimes, people commit crimes out of fear or necessity rather than evil, and should be shown mercy. (A little too late for the baby's father she executed earlier in the film.)
I've seen discussion in multiple places that Dredd is intended as satire and critique of the fascist police state, and this is espcially clear in its U.K. context and as the comic goes on. That's reassuring, because in both the U.S. and around the world, lots of people already live in communities where the police or military can, and do, execute anyone they want on sight. It's horrifying and awful, not cool. So I can imagine how especially someone from one of those communities, or from anywhere really, could sit and watch this film and be completely revolted. Personally, I don't reject it based on people who would love fascism missing the point and seeing something different in this film than I do, especially knowing the intent behind it. BUT I acknowledge that people who hate fascism may have a different gut feeling about this film than I do, and that's completely valid.
So what do I like about Dredd?
Most of all, Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson. She is amazing. She's young and inexperienced and possibly a failure at her chosen profession. She's not as strong as Judge Dredd. She lacks confidence. And yet she perseveres. Someone hurts her? She keeps going. Someone mocks or challenges her? She doesn't back down. Judge Anderson isn't your typical judge, but her psychic powers don't make her the weepy "girly" empath of the duo. She uses her power to get crucial information and then she and Dredd move forward. They're a team. When one of the bad guys tries to mess with her by showing her his vision of sexually assaulting her, she basically shrugs. Like, really, that's the best weapon you could come up with? Her character grows so much in a two hour movie, it's incredible to watch. And there's no romance with Judge Dredd or anyone else.
Judge Anderson is one of my favorite depictions of a woman in an action role, ever.
Lena Headey portrays the villainous Ma-Ma, leader of her gang, and she ranks near the top of my favorite female film villains. Evil to the core, canny, relentless, and brutal without remorse. Her backstory is that she was physically assaulted while working as a prostitute, killed the john, and then worked her way up to crime boss. But watching the movie, it's almost like the prostitution incident was the least important detail about her. It's like that just happened to be what she was doing at the time so it came up in conversation as a colorful anecdote, but it's not implied that this is what set her off. She's just really, really bad and really, really smart. And she doesn't need to act sexy to pull any of it off.
For more on these two, see Dredd: A Brilliant Portrayal of Women in Comics at comicbookGRRRL. Due to the sexual assault and prostitution references, I don't agree with her statement that "there is no difference between the portrayal of male and female characters in this film," but I do agree with her enthusiasm for these two strong female characters.
I really enjoyed Deobia Oparei, a British actor of African descent, who plays a the medic in the community where Judges Dredd and Anderson show up to investigate several murders that spark the film's plot. He's torn between the desire to do the "right thing" as Dredd and Anderson naively perceive it, and his reality that helping them could get him killed. Just like in the real world, the rules don't work the same way for everybody.
He's not the only person of color with a significant speaking role, and I enjoyed that as well. Wood Harris, an African-American actor, plays Ma-Ma's lieutenant whose capture sparks the war, did a really good job being creepy and bad without going over the top. Rakie Ayola, a Welsh actor of African descent, plays the Chief Judge. She's Judge Dredd's boss and assigns Anderson to Dredd against his reluctance. Would I have been happier with more women of color? Yes!
Finally, Karl Urban as Judge Dredd. I have never seen someone do so much acting with only the lower half of their face showing. I've seen people comment that he had no emotion in this role, and I have no idea what they're talking about.
The plot of the film is coherent, the pacing is great, and the interactions between various characters are satisfying. Also, there are lots and lots of guns and explosions, and the gore mostly stayed just on the side of the line I can't cross without covering my eyes. We enjoyed it so much that we bought it on DVD, and I'd recommend it - as long as you know what you're getting into before you watch!
Five stars, one of the greatest hits for women in action movies.