Here's one of the many 2012 films I meant to catch in theaters but missed due to school or work or whatever it was. An adaptation of the comic (which I haven't read) that tries to steer clear of the trappings of the previous film version, Dredd is a tight action flick that's heavy on gore and light on stupid jokes. Set in a future where the land between Boston and Washington, DC is a giant walled-in metropolis and justice is doled out by police-executioners, the film follows the first day in the field of a young psychic "judge", Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Though less than skilled in police work, her mutant abilities get her partnered up with the best judge in the force, Dredd (Karl Urban). While investigating a drug-related death in a low-income apartment complex, they stumble upon a massive criminal operation run by the formidable Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). When she locks down the entire building, the two judges are left to fight their way out with limited resources and a host of henchmen to take out.
Briskly paced and with impressive attention to character, Dredd is just a super solid action movie. It's not groundbreaking but it twists some conventions around in subtle ways which I liked, like how the slow-motion effects are used to show the effects of a new drug known as "Slo-mo", and filmed with a special camera as opposed to slowed down in post-production. Or how the cold-blooded crime lord at the top of the mountain is a woman, but she's not sexualized and in fact her gender rarely comes into play. Aside from her backstory (MISANDRY!) she is written like a male villain might be, and so relies on her wits, disposable lackeys, and deadly weapons holdings to take out the good guys, never her sexuality or "feminine wiles". And daaaaaamn does Lena Headey fucking SLAY in the role. At first I was just really impressed that they were able to uglify her so convincingly (because, did you know, in reality she's totally hot), but then I just fell in love with how mean she was, and how she's so completely evil that even a badass but sympathetic backstory can't make her salvageable. It's great.
I liked pretty much everything else about this movie, too, though. Urban is the right amount of gruff and tough, not overplaying it but still somewhat exaggerated to fit this sci-fi super-cop mold. He's got a great scowl, which is very important for a protagonist who never takes his eye-covering helmet off. I was generally really happy with Olivia Thirlby's character, since she's a cute naive rookie who also happens to be a mega-powerful psychic and totally not up for being victimized, despite attempts by Ma-Ma's henchman Kay (Wood Harris). She becomes more self-assured but also more ruthless as the film progresses, forcing herself to change so that she can survive the day. It's an interesting progression and Thirlby is well-suited to the character's mix of vulnerability and determination. The action sequences are well-choreographed, with both hand-to-hand combat and a few firefights. I liked the vision of the future primarily because it felt fairly realistic (aside from the notion that there'd be enough resources to power such a sprawling, overpopulated city). The extreme class discrepancies, crumbling infrastructure, rampant crime, and hyper-violent police "justice" are not far-fetched to contemporary viewers, and while for the most part this is a straight-faced action thriller, there are hints at serious commentary that I assume is more apparent in the comics' world-building.
I have to say the only thing I didn't like was how the ending felt rushed, or a little anticlimactic. For most of the film Ma-Ma is a pretty intimidating villain, and she remains merciless and cunning to end, but the final battle is strangely tame for a such a violent movie. I liked her final defeat, just thought the moments leading up to it were a little lackluster. But that's kind of inconsequential considering how I really, really liked the film otherwise!
Pair This Movie With: Of course The Raid comes to mind, or the Stallone Judge Dredd, but instead I would recommend my personal favorite action-movie-in-a-run-down-apartment-building, Attack the Block! If you want something more European, there's also District B13, which has some similar themes but is more upbeat.