Even a truly morally reprehensible, super-violent movie has its place in the culture. I'm not talking about a film like Dark Knight Rises, which in the wake of the Aurora shootings was the subject of our most recent cultural spasm over Hollywood violence. That was actually a thoughtful, artistic commentary on violence that wasn't all that violent. No, I'm thinking of something like Dredd, which doesn't strive to be thoughtful; it just wants to kill lots of people in the bloodiest ways possible. It's a movie that's Not Good For You; your kids shouldn't see it—but you'll have a blast watching it.
Based on the Judge Dredd comic book character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd was first made into a movie starring Sylvester Stallone in 1995, which was around the time that people decided they were tired of Stallone movies. (Or maybe the nation wasn't prepared to accept Rob Schneider as a comic sidekick in their action films.) The new film returns to what I gather was the key selling point of the original comics. As played by Karl Urban (Bones in the new Star Trek films), Dredd is essentially a futuristic Dirty Harry: He enforces the law without worrying about what a sadistic thug he is. In the movie, Dredd has no back story or character arc—his face obscured by a helmet, we don't even see his eyes—and even when he delivers one-liners after killing baddies, he doesn't do it with any joy. He's here to take out the trash, and in the futuristic, crime-ridden Mega City One, there's nothing but trash to take out, all the time.
The unsmiling Dredd is partnered with a rookie named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), and Dredd is convinced this kid won't last a day on these gritty streets, even though she has psychic powers. She gets a chance to prove herself, though, when they go into one of the city's towering slums to bust a notorious drug lord named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). They arrest one of her foot soldiers, whom she doesn't want blabbing to the cops, and so she announces to all the slum's fiendish residents that she'll pay handsomely for the murder of Dredd and Anderson. Pretty soon, you have The Raid: Redemption with less martial arts and a lot more exploding bodies.
There's no point in complaining about Dredd's questionable content. As combined judge, jury, and executioner, the movie's Judges don't bother arresting people. They just kill anyone who gives them problems. The film allows for an approximately 15-second moment when Anderson wonders about the ethics of killing indiscriminately, but then she gets over it and starts killing again. This attitude isn't a moral shortcoming in the film; it's what director Pete Travis is selling, and he sells it with the passion of a true believer. Dredd isn't the sort of film you'd describe as funny, but it inspires laughs because of how knowingly over the top it is. If you can find it within yourself to cackle with pleasure at the elegance of a guy getting his Adam's apple crushed right in front of you—in 3D—then there are several other equally astounding "Oh, hell no!" moments awaiting you.
For a guy who has to do all of his emoting with his jawline, Urban is quite effective. As conceived by screenwriter/novelist Alex Garland (28 Days Later), Dredd is a humorless dude doing the worst job in the world. You can't even say he's particularly heroic: He shoots people in the back and says everything in the same gruff why-are-you-bothering-me? monotone. But Urban's commitment to Dredd's dickishness makes the character weirdly admirable. Dredd doesn't change or grow, and most of the time he genuinely doesn't seem to care one way or the other what happens to Anderson. He doesn't have time for emotions and stuff—he's got bad guys to kill, damn it.
If Dredd's hyper-violence is the sort of thing that will inspire outrage from all the predictable camps, it ought to be pointed out how brutally effective this shoot-'em-up is. The movie's high-rise slum—the film's main location—is a tense, endlessly claustrophobic environment. (The long, grimly lit corridors seem borrowed from the Saw films.) And since the filmmakers make it pretty clear from the beginning how bloody and merciless the proceedings are going to be, you're never quite sure what violent horrors you'll witness. (You probably think you've seen every way that bodies can hit pavement from high distances. You are incorrect.) The movie's attitudes may be Neanderthal, but the film's crude, propulsive intensity has been constructed with great care. Dredd zips along, rarely questioning its own motives or its social value.
Every few months we'll get a straight-up genre movie—Lockout, Safe, The Expendables 2—that wants to be celebrated for how unapologetically old-school, violent-for-violence's-sake it is. Too often, though, these movies feel the need to wink, to undercut themselves with self-deprecation, to let the audience know that the whole thing is really just for fun. Dredd, bless its dark heart, doesn't do that. It starts off in a horrible post-apocalyptic landscape, and it just gets bleaker and meaner from there. The film doesn't allow you to enjoy it from a safe, "ironic" distance—it throws you into the middle of the carnage. If Hollywood is going to be indicted for making mindlessly violent action films, let them at least be as good as this one.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.