The best thing about this movie is its title. It's a name and an emotion—the exact right emotion one should feel if preparing to watch.
When Ma-Ma ain't happy, ain't no one happy. And Ma-Ma's having a really bad day.
Oh, you'd think this drug lordette would be doing just fine. After all, she manufactures and controls the illicit drug known as slo-mo for Mega-City One, an 800 million-person metropolis that covers much of what was once the eastern part of the United States. She's holed up on the 200th floor of the Peach Trees complex, a building/neighborhood/vertical village housing 75,000 mostly unemployed saps—a great resource for goons. She's worked and schemed and killed her way to the top, and now she's looking to expand her operation. Life doesn't get much better for a crime kingpin in this dystopian world.
But here's the thing: Earlier today, she had a few minor thugs skinned and tossed off her 200th-floor balcony, and the resulting splat drew the attention of a pair of judges—a newbie named Anderson, and Dredd, a longtime vet of the force whose fearsome rep is bigger than the Peach Trees lobby.
Keep in mind that these judges have little in common with Judge Judy or Wapner or any other robe-wearing, gavel-pounding modern incarnation of "judge" you might think of. Judges in this particular where-and-when brandish guns instead of gavels, serving as Mega-City One's police, its jury and its executioner. Each has a license to obliterate, and they're not afraid to use it.
Ordinarily, Ma-Ma would let the judges kill a few expendable henchmen and arrest a couple more. No point in attracting other judges to the region, after all. But Dredd and Anderson have nabbed Kay—a mid-level Ma-Ma's boy who knows way too much about her operation. Ma-Ma can't let Kay be interrogated, which means either he or they or all three can't leave the complex alive.
But killing off a judge, particularly Dredd, is no simple matter. And Ma-Ma wonders whether she'll have enough expendable henchmen to pull it off.
Justice and morality are hard to find in the murky world Dredd inhabits, and when they are found, they don't look much like what we have now. Folks don't really adhere to the whole "innocent until proven guilty" maxim. A jury of one's peers? With 17,000 major crimes committed every day, there's no time. The judges are as good as it gets in Mega-City One.
But within those admittedly faulty confines, we gotta give Dredd and Anderson props for doing the best they can under the circumstances.
Dredd might be as close as we're going to get to a Boy Scout in this fractured future. A stickler for law and order, he wields his judicial power like a scythe, cutting down fields of bad guys like so much wheat … while trying to never overstep his legal bounds. He is skilled, incorruptible and nigh unstoppable—a veritable angel of death in body armor.
Anderson isn't any of those things … yet. It's her first day on the job, after all, and while she fervently wants to help and protect the citizens of Mega-City One, she's not yet shed the copious amounts of blood the job seems to require. Still, she shows pity and occasionally lets the "bad guys"—folks she believes are as much victims of Ma-Ma's machinations as participants—go. "Maybe it'll be the one [positive] difference I do make," she tells Dredd. So if Dredd's all justice and judgment, Anderson shows us what grace might look like when the world has long since come apart at the seams.
Anderson is psychic. (But the ability is presented as biological, not spiritual; she's called a mutant a few times.)
Learning that Anderson is psychic and wanting to throw her off her game, Kay thinks up explicit sexual fantasies involving the two of them. Anderson and audiences see these fantasies in stylized sequences. In one a naked Anderson is bent over with Kay standing behind her. She jerks her head in slow motion—as if she's been slapped—with saliva flying from her mouth. In another, she unzips her outfit in front of Kay and disrobes. (We see her from the back.) She kneels down as if to perform oral sex, but then changes Kay's fantasy so that it's Ma-Ma, with her mouth covered in blood.
We learn that Ma-Ma was once a prostitute operating in a Mega-City One "pleasure district" before someone cut up her face. It's stated that she "feminized" her consort with her teeth (implying that she bit the man's penis or testicles off). We see her in a bathtub from the shoulders up.
It's possible that thousands of people die in this movie, with several dozen of them expiring onscreen. And when slo-mo addicts die while on the drug, we see their deaths in freakishly slow motion. Several people are shot while using, and bullets tear through skin and fat as if they were subjects of an incredibly morbid PBS special. One bullet exits a man's cheek, leaving the ragged skin around the hole flapping like a tattered flag. Another user falls from a great height: Here, the camera lens doubles as the ground, whereupon the victim's face splits open, is mangled and gushes blood until nothing but red is visible.
Ma-Ma orders three people to be skinned alive and thrown from her balcony. We hear the screams and, in flashback, see someone peeling skin away from a body. The victims fall to the ground with horrible, tomato-like splats, and when a judge examines the bodies more closely, it's revealed how much of one skull had caved in. A man's head gets shot to the point where it starts losing shape.
An evil henchman loses his hand and forearm when a booby trapped weapon blows up in his grip. He gapes at the remaining stump before a judge polishes him off. Anderson's ordered to kill a wounded goon (blood already seeping out of the guy's mouth), and she does, shooting him point-blank in the head. Judge Dredd fires an incendiary that sets several thugs ablaze. They flail and run, and at least one falls off a balcony. Dredd guns down dozens more, the impact of the bullets often accompanied by spurts of blood. He beats down one suspect, punching, head-butting and choking the guy, finally leaving his face a bloody mess.
You're probably noticing a trend by now.
An innocent pedestrian is struck by a van full of criminals, and we see the bloody impact of the body on the windshield. A man is squished by a closing blast door. Countless people are murdered when Ma-Ma uses massive machine guns to all but obliterate an entire level of the complex. She embeds a device in her wrist that, if she dies, will bring Peach Trees down and kill the rest of its 75,000 residents.
Dredd suffers a gaping wound in his midsection, which he cleans and staples shut. He also dabs at an injury that leaves Anderson temporarily immobile. A man has his eyes replaced with cyborg-like eyeball-cameras, and we see a bit of the procedure, with the bloodied, temporarily eyeless victim screaming in pain. Corpses often lie untended.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 50 f-words, a dozen or so s-words and a half-dozen uses of "b‑‑ch." There's also one misuse of God's name in which it's mashed up with both the f-word and "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Drug abuse is a big part of Dredd's plot: We see inhalers and vials filled with slo-mo, a massive lab where the stuff is manufactured, and loads of people who are high on the stuff.
But we also see the negative impact the drug has. Ma-Ma looks like a meth addict, complete with sunken eyes and rotting teeth. Many of her henchmen seem addled and/or impaired. A homeless man carries a cardboard sign that describes him as a junkie who will "debase himself for food."
Other Negative Elements
A man urinates on himself. A handful of judges accept a bribe to kill one of their own.
A judge describes Mega-City One as nothing but a glorified meat grinder. "People go in one end and meat comes out the other," he tells Dredd. "All we do is turn the handle."
That meat grinder works overtime in Dredd, and most of the characters we see here are treated with all the sympathy of sausages. Anderson and Dredd both notify their home base when there are bodies ready not for burial but for recycling. And in one scene a city street cleaner motors through a pool of blood, trying to sweep up the mess.
Indeed, Dredd's world is all but devoid of the civility, decency and morality that proves we're more than meat. As such, the film's carnage and nifty-icky special effects seem designed to stress how frail and mortal and meaty we all are. There's not much that separates us from your standard pork chop, the film seems to want to tell us.
Arguably, that callous appraisal of humanity helps draw attention to those characters who do aspire to be something more: The guy who tries to help the judges (though he's immediately shot for his trouble) or the woman who just wants to see her husband come home safe (though he's already lying dead somewhere). Judges Dredd and Anderson, most especially, show us that even in this bleak, horrible world, there are still those who adhere to and dole out justice—and even sometimes dispense a bit of grace with it.
Which is nice and all, I guess. But, really, do any of us need a movie like this to learn that lesson? Have we been reduced so far down to the lowest common denominator that we require an R-rated corpse-and-corpuscle festival to tell us we're more than the sum of our parts? A dreadful notion, that.