Enough years have passed to erase the woeful memories of Sylvester Stallone’s take on British cult comic hero Judge Dredd, with its dopey lead and PG violence. Director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later) certainly hope so, with their new reimagining of the character, Dredd 3D. Unlike the Stallone flick, this Dredd is much more violent and raw (though equally as dumb), a welcome nod to the character’s comic book origins that’s relentless from start to finish.
In the film’s hilariously dismal view of the future, nuclear war has devastated the planet, forcing the remaining populace (still numbering in the tens of millions) to live in “mega cities” — massive enclosures containing huge skyscraper-like tenement buildings and freeways. Crime runs rampant, life is worthless, etc. Drones patrol the sky watching for crimes-in-progress and citizens considered undesirable by the state. To control the chaos, legions of “judges” are given the power to convict, sentence (and almost always) execute criminals.
The film opens with the most badassed of the judges, the gruff, mealy-mouthed Dredd (Karl Urban), gunning down a gang suspected of ingesting SLO-MO, a new designer drug that gives the sensation of time moving at a tenth its normal speed. (Which, considering how awful life is in the future, is the worst drug ever.) Production of the drug — and control of most of the city’s gangs — is under the hand of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a scar-faced, sadistic ex-prostitute given to skinning her rivals and chucking them off balconies.
Dredd and his new recruit, a pixie-eyed psychic mutant named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are forced to take on Ma-Ma on her home turf when they’re, um, dredd-locked into Peach Towers, one of the high-rises where the disfigured gangster holds court.
Travis and Garland have an obvious love of the source material, with wonderfully composed shots straight out of the comic. It’s ultra-violent, with exploding heads and suppurating chest wounds, all set to a pounding industrial score straight outta 1995. Additionally, the 3D is crisp and clear, though it appears to have been solely employed to show slow-motion images of splashing water and thugs smoking SLO-MO, that wonderful “crack of the future.” It’s exhaustingly ugly (the whole film takes place in a dingy apartment building), which suits the material but becomes tiresome by the film’s end.
Dredd owes a huge debt to this year’s anti-narrative action hit The Raid: Redemption, which had the same plot of cops outnumbered in a locked-down high-rise pummeling their way through scores of drug-dealing baddies. While The Raid was amazingly nonsensical, Dredd attempts to find a shred of relevancy with its dystopian plot, a Republican “let God sort ’em out” wet dream where the only thing that stands between civility and utter chaos (a defunct Occupy Movement?) is a white guy with a gun. The filmmakers obviously love this type of material, and there are enough shout-outs to other sci-fi flicks — Blade Runner, Robocop — to entertain fans of the genre.
It’s far, far from perfect, devolving in its final third into a tedious, video game-styled shootout, with an ending so perfunctory and tossed off (despite an awesomely gory set piece) that it nearly destroys the experience. And yet, somehow, someway, Dredd 3D emerges as just the kind of explosive, chest-pounding dumb-ass entertainment that makes going to the movies so awesome.