Karl Urban is the law. And finally, that’s something that matters.
Since 1995, the only world we’ve ever known for the character of Judge Dredd, the motorcycle-riding judicial system created by the British writer/artist team of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra in the late 1970s, has been the overly silly vanity project starring Sly Stallone in 1995. Stallone’s Dredd was, at best, a parody of the original comic character. And while it delivered a bit of fun at the time, history does not look fondly on the attempt. It wasn’t the film that such a character deserved, despite the unfamiliarity American audiences had with him.
Enter writer Alex Garland and star Karl Urban, who set out to make Dredd 3D a worthy adaptation. For that matter, lets just forget the past and say what really matters: Enter Dredd. The real one.
Set in Megacity One, a vast metropolis spanning the Eastern seaboard in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by nuclear fallout, Dredd jumps right into the action with our hero, whose face we never see (much like the comics). He’s chasing down perps through the sad slums of his precinct, dispensing justice with a calm demeanor that is simultaneously terrifying and ultra cool. Gruff in his delivery and dead serious throughout, Karl Urban absolutely sells his take on the character. Dredd walks the righteous line, has no moral grey area and kicks-ass by the book.
Not long after we meet this new and improved (and refreshingly badass) Judge Dredd, he is assigned a partner in Anderson, a mind-reading Hall of Justice academy flunky who forgets her helmet played by Olivia Thirlby. As he sets out to assess her performance, the pair are lead to Peach Trees, a tower housing more than 75,000 residents, all living under the thumb of scarfaced gang queen Ma-Ma (a sinister Lena Headey) and a hip new drug called SloMo.
The introduction of SloMo (the drug) is perhaps the film’s best stylistic choice. Finally, someone has come up with a great device that (a) serves the core narrative of the film and (b) gives the filmmakers ample reason to use an amount of slow-motion that would have a tantric effect on Zack Snyder and make it look hyper-cool in 3D. The slow-motion establishing shots don’t help the film’s up-and-down levels of energy (one of its few real problems), but the slow-motion action sequences are nothing short of spectacular. Garland and director Pete Travis accomplish that killer duality of a fine Dredd adaptation — the post-apocalyptic grunge and the visceral, blood-splattering action around every corner. As Dredd and his cohort Anderson move up the 200-stories of Peach Trees, a slew of gangs come forth to the slaughter. And when the going gets rough, this movie sprays blood on the walls. It’s beyond delightful.
In addition to Urban, the other performances throughout the film are strong. Lena Headey is wild fun as Ma-Ma, who is in a perpetual state of being extremely high and extremely crazy, but not without some calculated evil. Olivia Thirlby is a serviceable sidekick for Urban, who starts off as an accessory and evolves into the film’s emotional core. She even struts some action chops. In the end though, it’s Urban’s show. He dispenses justice and one-liners in equal measure, all without a hint of irony. This is a serious Dredd built for the serious environment that Alex Garland has crafted. It’s those of us on the other side of the screen who get to have all the fun.
For all the stigma Dredd will have to endure as it enters theaters — comparisons with the 1995 film, narrative comparisons to last year’s The Raid by movie geekdom — it emerges heroic for fans of the character and action films alike. It’s high-energy, hard R-rated, 100% helmeted fun at the hands of a star who knows his character, a writer who knows his source and a director who’s clearly having fun with the tech. It’s still early, sure, but don’t be surprised if we’re looking back at Dredd 3D as one of 2012’s premiere action films.
The Upside: A killer take on the character, full of great 3D and slow-motion effects that enhance a stellar performance from Karl Urban.
The Downside: There are small instances of downtime that drag, particularly as establishing shots are delivered in the hyper-slowmo, but it’s negligible when compared to the riotous action to which it leads.
On the Side: Arnold Schwarzenegger originally turned down the lead role in the 1995 film because the original script had Dredd keeping his helmet on for almost the entire movie. Stallone’s Dredd eventually took his helmet off all the time, one of the many deviations from the original comic. Urban’s face is never seen in Dredd (2012), as he promised when he took the role.