Heads up: Dredd is kind of an unrelenting movie.

It’s not the plot – the plot’s so pared-down The Warriors would approve. In perpetually grimy Mega-City 1, veteran Judge Dredd and rookie psychic Judge Anderson show up to a triple homicide at Peach Trees, a 200-story complex under the control of crime lord Ma-Ma and her operation, manufacturing the time-stopping, glittery-rainbow-and-Tabernacle-Choir hallucinogen Slo-Mo. When the Judges arrest a middleman who knows more than he should, Ma-Ma locks them in and begins a Judge-hunt that gets more claustrophobic and desperate the higher up the tower they go.

And it’s not just sensory-input unrelenting, with music and sound so remarkably loud you spend the movie with DJ headphones on just to keep out the worst of it (first time I’ve ever had to do that, and while I’m assuming it was just my theatre, there is some ear-shattering sound design in that movie).

And it’s not even just unrelenting because much of the violence happens in Slo-Mo, meaning that every time someone’s shot – say, through the face – we watch the skin flay from the muscle on impact, the bullet flying from the cavern of his missing cheek, a quart of blood spraying in every direction. (As far as this movie’s concerned, that’s a minor injury.) And the sheer volume of casualties eventually reached Hot Shot’s body-count tally levels of surreal.

The most unrelenting thing about Dredd is that beneath the monosyllabic one-liners and the jet-takeoff sound effects, there’s a nihilistic core that becomes its own silent protagonist, a move that both raises the movie a notch above some more oblivious SF actionfests, with occasional (and surprising) missteps, and renders the film a study in bleakness.

So, as it turns out, Dredd actually does center around the almost-inevitable cycle of crime within an overpopulated city in economic depression with a scanty police force focused on crime cleanup rather than prevention, and posits that at some point policing organized crime on top of the body count of living in general chaos is a losing game. (Early on, the rookie asks how many crimes Judges can handle. Answer: About six percent.)

The movie manages to demonstrate this crime cycle without quite demonizing Ma-Ma, world-weariest druglord of the year. It makes clear that some people in Peach Trees are in Ma-Ma’s clan because they’re out of options. It shows a crimelord who comes on the PA system prior to a gunfight to warn civilians to stay inside, and who later unleashes thousands of rounds straight through their apartments to reach the Judges. The movie show that Judges can be corrupt, and that, if not corrupt, they still wield power that requires more self-reflection than many of them give it. (Judges’ totalitarian aspects are, interestingly, held somewhat in check by repeated calls about detainees destined for imprisonment, and Dredd’s assertion he can’t execute a man on Anderson’s “99% sure” claim he’s a murderer.) It shows civilians who hate Judges but are helpful for their own reasons; it shows civilians sympathetic to Judges who refuse to help for their own reasons.

Lena Headey turns in an amazing performance as a crimelord in power who’s fully aware the wheel will turn. Her fatalism is palpable, and while you never doubt she had the drive to rise to power, it’s also no surprise she’s a user as well as the manufacturer. Karl Urban is a great Dredd, sardonic but relentless, delivering some really good character moments despite having only six square inches of visible face. Olivia Thirlby, who I last saw in just-as-awkward-as-it-sounds The Secret, does a grounded job with the movie’s most traditionally developed part – as a first-day rookie three points shy on her Judge exams but with psychic powers that make her an asset, she starts out eager to prove herself, makes morally grey decisions as things proceed, and emerges on the other side totally disillusioned.

In fact, many of the movie’s best moments are hers. Aside from some initial beats that veered into Counselor Troi territory, Anderson’s psychic powers are put to good use (once, she uses a psychic pickup and suggestion to get access to an apartment and avoid a hallway shootout), and we see her making morally-questionable choices while trying to reconcile her definition of justice. At one point, she lets Ma-Ma’s techie go free, having Seen the duress under which he’s been operating.

And by then, Dredd respects the rookie enough to let the decision stand – part of an organic and subtle partnership that builds almost as an afterthought.

Given that it does all this with as much nuance and agility as it’s possible to squeeze into a $50 million bottle episode, it seems not just lazy, but bizarre, to have some of the missteps Dredd has. Of the three clan members singled out for characterization or plot points, the two whose involvement is presented as food for thought or outright sympathy are white. The suspect over whom the battle is fought – long-time Ma-Ma middleman Kay – is a smug, murdering rapist, who imagines violating Anderson so as to intimidate her, and who, when he gets her at gunpoint, makes clear he intends to follow through. He is a man of color. He is not the only man of color in Ma-Ma’s ranks, but he’s the one who gets a character, and in a film that does so much else so smartly, it seems an odd and a marked casting choice for the utterly unrepentant sexual criminal. (And in case you weren’t sure being a woman is dangerous, by the way, Ma-Ma’s backstory is given at length: she’s an ex-prostitute assaulted and cut by her pimp – whose dick she bit off when she killed him, a move which started her rise to power.)

It’s all the more odd because Dredd was written by Alex Garland, who also wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine, one of which examined its rape-threat trope much more frankly, and the other of which was an entirely rape-free film! Director Pete Travis also directed Endgame, a movie that examined racism (specifically, the late days of South African Apartheid) with some degree of real engagement.

Though perhaps the answer is as simple as this: Dredd is such a nihilistic flick that it wanted to be certain to abandon all hope, about anything. There are moments of grim humor, to be sure, but this is a film in which a homeless man is crushed to a pulp by some lowering blast doors just as he’s being arrested for begging. It’s no wonder Ma-Ma takes her slow, inevitable leap with all the stoic acceptance of someone getting their last wish.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. Its questionable moments aside, it’s solidly written, and sometimes even approaches poignance. (Once, Anderson and Dredd break through the wall onto a small balcony; the lingering, silent shot of Mega-City at night is beautiful and calm…until Anderson realizes there’s no exit and they’ll have to go back the way they came.) If you can handle a body count in the hundreds, lovingly-detailed gore, and a movie in which heroics are proven useless in the greater scope, it’s got some clever moments, more tension than many other SF action flicks, and smart lead characters on both sides of the fence.

But at one point, another Judge tells Dredd, “It’s a meat grinder. We just turn the handle,” and that is about as good a description of this Dredd as any.