You know what's a great San Diego Comic-Con movie? An action-packed, futuristic thrill ride that gets the audience to cheer for the hero. The screening of Dredd indeed got a few whoops here and there, but all were quickly drowned out by deafening audio and no understanding of what’s to cheer for.
Dredd takes place in a world decimated by atomic wars, with a focus on an area called Mega-City One. The region is decrepit, oozing with drug dealers and criminals, leaving little room for the innocent to live safe and honest lives. Their only hope are the Judges, a futuristic police force rocking voice-activated weaponry with one-track minds; deliver the appropriate sentence.
When Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is paired with a rookie, Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), the two are assigned to investigate a triple homicide in one of the massive housing complexes of Mega-City One, Peach Trees. Little do they know, this isn’t your average homicide. These are the victims of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless drug dealer with a monopoly on the drug Slo-Mo.
Oddly enough, Dredd is rather odd to synopsize, yet the plot is terribly simplistic. It’s Dredd vs. Ma-Ma and there’s little else to it. An attempt at constructing a somewhat eloquent synopsis only highlights Dredd’s detrimental plot flaws. You can say Pete Travis' film is made for moviegoers familiar with the source material, as there’s little to no character development. On the other hand, Dredd also comes across as, well, Dredd for dummies, with characters reciting plot points rather than naturalistic dialogue. Regardless of which way you look at it, Dredd is only for one type of moviegoer, the kind who’s eager to turn his or her mind off and merely watch some action.
Director Pete Travis may not have much to work with as far as the script goes, but he does manage to maintain a strong and consistent tone, something that works quite well with this wildly gory show. If someone takes a bullet to the face, Travis is going to highlight it, often to the point at which you could be watching a single guy die for an entire minute. Few meet their maker in Dredd without the audience getting a close-up look at the blow that ends his or her life in slow motion meant to mimic the Slo-Mo drug.. It’s excessive, but then again, that’s what Dredd is for – to watch action, not to feel repercussions.
The fact that Urban’s face is almost entirely covered the entire film exacerbates the fact that Dredd never feels human. Unlike most superhero or superhero-like films, Dredd doesn’t get a backstory. He’s simply thrown into action. Without knowing a single detail about where he came from and without having any access to Urban’s facial expressions, it’s impossible to look at Dredd as a person and, therefore, also impossible to feel for him.
Luckily Thirlby’s Anderson is far more engaging. Her story is quite thin as well, but she does have some layers and thanks to a solid performance from Thirlby, we’re able to see the wheels turning in the rookie's head. Unlike the Judge, her actions are far less predictable, instantly upping the suspense in any scene she’s in. No, this doesn’t get Dredd any closer to being a deep movie by any means, but it does give the audience something to connect to.
Heady, on the other hand, finds herself in a similar position as Urban. She’s not stuck in a helmet the entire time, but her character is mostly just an unappealing makeup job and grisly teeth. She’s supposedly some ruthless killer, but Ma-Ma has so many henchmen taking care of business for her, we never know what she’s truly capable of and, therefore, never grow to fear her.
With no threatening villain and a hero with the emotional range of a block of wood, all that’s really left to the film are the visuals. The movie is often too noticeably gritty for 3D and Travis’ attempt at giving us some access to Dredd by focusing his close-ups on the man's chin is entirely unsuccessful, but when it comes to kill scenes, boy does the director know how to put together some stunning visuals. Dredd is a successful showcase of eye-popping violence, just not an enthralling story.