“Judge Dredd” started as a comic book series in 1977 and eventually became so long-lived and popular that it spawned a really bad film adaptation in 1995. Get that movie out of your head now – pretend like it never happened – because Dredd 3D is a completely new take on the character; one the values hard-hitting action over comic book camp, one that has no interest in wacky side kicks or studio mandated love interests.
The story is simple: in the far future, humanity has started living in gigantic city-states the size of small countries that are densely populated and densely developed. What with so many people being piled on top of one another, poverty has run rampant, crime is ubiquitous, and street gangs rule the day. The only line of defense between innocent people and complete chaos are the Street Judges, a group of dangerous and highly trained operatives who prowl the streets on their big motorcycles while carrying their big guns, acting as judge, jury, and executioner all in one. Our story centers on a Judge who goes by the name of Dredd; he’s pretty much the most badass one.
This time around, Dredd (Karl Urban) has been tasked with performing a field examination of a possible new recruit. Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) brings some unique skills to the table, but her test scores aren’t up to par, so it comes down to a day on the streets with the most dangerous Judge of all to see if she can hack it as a member of the team. Things degenerate when a call on a triple homicide in one of Mega-City One’s gigantic housing blocks leads to an all-out war with a ruthless gang led by an enigmatic figure called Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). A manipulation of the block’s computer system puts it on emergency lockdown, and Dredd and his new recruit find themselves locked inside, without backup, and facing off against tens of thousands of residents who have been instructed to take them out or face the consequences. If you think this sounds sort of like Training Day meets The Raid, then yeah, you get the idea. It’s a simple action story spiced up with some sci-fi style.
The first thing you notice about Dredd 3D is how seamlessly Mega-City One is rendered. It’s a dense, sprawling metropolis brought to life by effects work so skilled that when the camera is sweeping over the terrain, you’ll swear you’re looking at a real-life city on Google Earth. That is, if there was any city this bustling, this decaying, or this dangerous anywhere on the planet. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and his effects and design crews make you feel like you’re really here, living among the impoverished citizens of the city. But, more than that, they do such great world-building that they make you want to stay there. Whether it’s due to the influence of the source material, the designers, or screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later), Mega-City One comes off like a fully realized location, one that’s ripe for exploration, and one that feels far more exciting than the world we’re living in today. That’s always the hallmark of a good sci-fi setting.
Dredd isn’t about exploring this world, however. After an introductory sequence, the entirety of the story takes place inside this one housing block. The good news is that the block is a rich enough local to easily support the focus of an entire feature. Once the block gets closed off and Dredd and his recruit have to blast their way out, the film essentially takes on the same plot as The Raid, which is why you keep seeing the two films mentioned in the same breath. But, make no mistake, these aren’t the same films by any stretch. The Raid is all about hand-to-hand combat and elaborately choreographed fights, while Dredd is all about firepower and bodies riddled with bloody bullet holes. Which works better will come down to personal preference, but more likely than not, action fans will walk away from both feeling fully satisfied.
The cool thing about the simplicity of the plot isn’t just that it allows Dredd to focus on thrills and not get bogged down in exposition, but also that it leaves so much more of this intriguing world to still be discovered. By the end of Dredd, we’ve only explored one building in a city that spans several U.S. states, and you’re left practically salivating for sequels. And given the fact that Dredd’s face is always obscured, and his demeanor is simple, gravely-voiced gruffness, he could easily be transitioned over onto other actors if the cast runs out of steam before the writers. Dredd and Mega-City One are fun enough and versatile enough that it would be easy to imagine them becoming a sci-fi version of the James Bond franchise.
Before we go re-casting the property for sequels, however, let’s talk about how Urban does with the character. The man gives good grit, so he’s a great choice for Dredd. Sure, this uptight hard-ass of a Judge doesn’t ask much of its actor other than being stern and stoic, but as Christian Bale has proven in things like The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, growling out tough guy lines and not looking completely ridiculous isn’t as easy as it seems. Urban is an actor who you buy doing Eastwood, and the fact that Garland’s script gives him plenty of hard-boiled, action hero one-liners to knock out of the park doesn’t hurt.
Thirlby’s character serves as the eyes through which we see Dredd’s violence-soaked world. She’s the vulnerable one, the one we root for, and she does a great job of keeping her character easy to identify with while still looking at home during the action stuff. The real jewel of the supporting cast is Headey as Ma-Ma, though. For a pretty lady, she sure makes for an authentically scummy gang member. But more than that, the character is named Ma-Ma, and Headey is able to infuse her with a motherly quality even while she’s ruthlessly poking out people’s eyeballs with her fingernails. What she does here is closer to her work as Sarah Connor than it is her work as Cersei Lannister, and it makes for a more interesting and disturbing villain than we usually get in the dumb sort of movie where the best sequence involves three chain guns and a whole lot of destruction.
While good action and good performances are the bread and butter of making a movie like Dredd a success, the film takes things a step further by inserting a little bit of artistry into its visuals. The bulk of the plot involves the gang’s production of a new drug called Slo-Mo, which makes its user experience time much slower than reality. The sequences where we see things through drug vision are day glow, beautiful, and reminiscent of the visual palate Gaspar Noe used in Enter the Void. In addition to the effects sequences, there’s some really striking photography hidden throughout this grimy action yarn as well. Especially affecting were the shots where sunlight finally penetrates the walls of the housing block, and the one where a skull splatters on the concrete, in full-on Rorschach Test glory. Dredd is a fun shoot ‘em up, but it’s also kind of beautifully disgusting.
The Upside: Dredd keeps it simple, stupid. There isn’t too much plot, there isn’t too much backstory, there’s just sci-fi infused action, shot at your head in three round bursts so as not to overheat your attention span.
The Downside: Okay, so not everyone is into firepower and future cities, and some are going to come out of this thing wishing it had more plot and character development. Dredd tastes good going down, but it’s not good for you. It’s junk food, plain and simple.
On the Side: Seeing as the movie is marketing itself as Dredd 3D, you might be wondering how they fared in implementing that third dimension. The 3D looks great, and it works to accentuate the immersive experience of being thrust into this expansive world. This is one of the few times where you’ll want to cough up a few extra bucks to watch the version with the goofy glasses.