For reasons we may never understand, movie studios, in their infinite wisdom, often decide to drop two movies about the same thing at the same time. That's how we end up with dueling volcano-based disaster movies, giant-asteroid-based disaster movies, or Truman Capote biopics. But in 2012, we got supremely lucky. I would've been happy with one simple, brutal, unrelenting action flick about outgunned supercops fighting to the top of a hoodlum-infested tenement building, trying to take out the drug kingpins on the top floor. We got two.
The first of those two movies was The Raid: Redemption, from Indonesia, and it was, almost inarguably, the single best action movie that anyone has made in our young century. It was almost the platonic ideal of an action movie: a one-sentence setup carried out with bloodthirsty efficiency, with impactful fights, memorable deaths, vivid characters, and not one single extraneous sentimental moment. It was everything great about action movies, with none of the bullshit we've come to accept, and it was a revelation.
When Dredd came along a few months later, it came off looking like a ripoff, or even a loose remake, even though the two movies were conceived independently of one another —exact same austere plot, grey brutalist architecture, and oppressive head-squish mood. The differences (Dredd moves the idea to a dystopian future and adds comic-book characters) seem secondary to the similarities; the producers could've probably avoided licensing fees by taking off Dredd's helment, changing a few character names, and calling it The Future Raid or something.
Still, Dredd is a minor classic in its own right, and it raises the question: Why can't we have more of these minimal shoot-first apartment-set action movies? Right now, the entire concept is two for two. Can we just drop Jason Statham at the ground floor of a council-estate high-rise and watch what happens?
Of course, this movie is based on Judge Dredd, a demented late-'70s British comic-book antihero who served as a bitter parody of the Dirty Harry-style American knucklehead-vigilante death-drive. On paper, our hero is an emotionless force who never takes his helmet off and dispatches legions of petty criminals without once considering the ethical implications. Sylvester Stallone fans might remember the garbage-ass 1995 movie that took this hard-as-fuck character and made him friends with Rob Schneider. But the 2012 movie ditched that stuff and returned Dredd to his grim roots, with one crucial distinction: No more over-the-top satire.
Some complained that the result missed the point of the comics—you're supposed to be simultaneously thrilled and appalled by the Judges' exploits, not straight-up thrilled—but I think the movie's approach works better. It presents a deeply fucked-up world and lets you figure out what was fucked up about it on your own.
The movie borrows plenty of identifiable elements from the books—the hero, the setting, the sidekick psychic rookie Judge Anderson—but it never relies on a familiarity that, if you're American, you probably don't have. A portentous deep-voiced muttering narrator tells you everything you need to know during the intro: It's the future, most of the country is a wasteland, the rest of the population has been crammed into a walled off Mega-City that covers the entire northeastern seaboard. Criminals have the run of the place, and only a small cell of hyperviolent Judges keeps things from sliding into absolute chaos.
Given the mercilessness of the criminals—we see the big heavy Ma-Ma ruthlessly gatling-gun an entire apartment block just to take out Dredd—the Judges' single-minded ruthlessness seems almost reasonable. But you won't come away with the impression that Dredd would be a fun guy to hang out with. In the title role, veteran tough guy Karl Urban, acting with his eyes permanently hidden behind a helmet/visor, rasps and barks orders and blows shit up, only relaxing for long enough to issue the occasional icy one-liner. Anderson, played by former Juno best friend Olivia Thirlby, is the real viewer surrogate, and she gets the only thing resembling a character arc: Unsure and tortured by her conscience at the beginning of the movie, mechanically murdering by the end. Given that the movie takes place over a single day, it's quite a transformation.
The two main villains come from the HBO repertory company: Game of Thrones' Lena Headey is wiry and brittle as Ma-Ma, while The Wire's Wood Harris serves as a gleefully sadistic underling. But the real cold-blooded bastards are the special-effects wizards who animate the effects of
Slow-Down Slo-Mo, a future-drug that causes its users to see the world in beautiful, psychedelically saturated slow motion. That lets director Pete Travis linger lovingly on his gore—on the nearly still images of bullets tearing through cheeks and bellies, of broken-glass shards glimmering like stars. These scenes are disturbingly pretty, and we all fucked up when we skipped the 3D version in the theater.
There has been a minor online movement toward a Dredd sequel, and god knows that would rule, but it seems unlikely. Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland reportedly feuded bitterly during the movie's production, though fortunately they found ways to keep their beef offscreen. The movie itself lost money and failed to erase cultural memories of the Stallone version. If we do eventually get another one, great; I won't be the asshole that skips the theatrical version this time. But if we don't, perhaps we should marvel at the fact that the movie got made in the first place: a grim and gruesome comic-book movie devoid of superheroics, its stakes clean and simple, its story tight and economical and focused. And maybe let's start setting more of these things in drug-fortress apartment buildings.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.