Sometimes Hollywood re-uses good ideas. Karl Urban, who played Bones in the most recent “Star Trek” movie, maybe the best cast film I’ve ever seen, will again play the Enterprise’s doctor in the sequel to that film, “Into Darkness.” Good. He was great in the first movie.
In fact, the New Zealander has been good in all the movies in which I’ve seen him, including “Priest,” “Pathfinder,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” and a couple of the Lord of the Rings movies. I also like big-eyed Olivia Thirlby, who stars as Cassandra alongside Urban in “Dredd,” the industry’s second crack at the Judge Dredd comic book series. The first, you may remember, was a 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie.
The story in the new version depends on some details that those making “Dredd” borrowed from Gareth Evan’s Indonesian kung fu movie “The Raid: Redemption.” Or else Evans and Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay for “Dredd,” borrowed from the same source. Either way the idea of a tall residential building, built around an air shaft and dominated by a drug-selling gang with its lab on the premises—this stuff is not new to action movies.
“Dredd” offers enough new fillips and features—better photography; visual differentiation of drugged consciousness and Cassandra’s psychic episodes, more professional-looking costumes and sets—so that fans of the earlier movie will probably like “Dredd” too, for some different reasons. Certainly I enjoyed it. Most of the time.
The story takes us into a futures when America has become so lawless that armored and armed motorcycle cops are given special legal authority. Each one is judge, jury, and executioner. This speeds up law enforcement considerably.
Urban, whose face we never see, plays the title character, a cold-blooded gunzel who agrees to take a rookie along with him for a trial day. The rookie is Cassandra. That day they take on Peach Trees, a seventy-plus story apartment building where a disfigured ex-hooker calling herself Mah-Mah runs things and cooks up a new recreational drug which slows time down so that one minute seems like a hundred.
She also skins her rivals, gives them the drug, and then has them tossed down the air shaft. So here come Dredd and Cassandra (who instead of a psychic-powers-blocking helmet wears a blonde wig that looks like a cotton mop). Mah-Mah takes over building security and has her new antagonists locked in and reinforcements locked out.
Most of the action follows Dredd as he shoots and Cassandra intuits their way up floor after floor. They knock off bands of roving gang members, bringing along a murder suspect with them as they go. But the two cops are separated. Cassandra is captured by the Mah-Mahs, and looks to be in for a lengthy and very unpleasant death.
Then fake or corrupt cops arrive and track down Dredd in the drug lab. He is shot and seriously wounded, and is out of ammo. Could this be the end for our heroes? And if it isn’t, will the strict Dredd allow that Cassie deserves a shot as a full-fledged Judge?
Well, I didn’t say there were any real surprises in “Dredd.” Quite the opposite. It gives its audience just about exactly what they would have guessed it would. And that’s what they want. This sort of action movie is one of the kinds of things film does well and consistently.
And if action movies often resemble earlier action movies, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, if the cheaply made “The Raid” could be entertaining, wouldn’t it make sense that the better-financed and more technically-skilled moviemakers in Hollywood could make an attractive movie version of the same story?