It's been seventeen years since Sylvester Stallone mumbled his way through the first attempt to put 2000 AD favourite Judge Dredd on the silver screen, and the resulting big-budget misfire killed the chances of a sequel stone dead. With a script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later) and direction from Pete Travis, Dredd returns in 3D in the shape of Karl Urban (Star Trek, Lord Of The Rings), hopefully putting a bullet through the forebrain of the Stallone movie and laying it permanently to rest.
In Dredd’s grim future, most of the USA is a nuclear wasteland, and the remaining millions are crammed into Mega City One, a decaying urban warren of sprawling roads and monolithic city-blocks that house tens of thousands of citizens at a time. Unemployment is endemic, crime is rampant, and the only authority belongs to the Judges: a judicial force empowered to arrest, sentence or execute anyone breaking the law. Most implacable and unswerving of these is Judge Dredd: tough, taciturn, incorruptible and utterly dedicated to the law. Assigned to assess a young rookie, the psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), they investigate three gruesome slayings in one of the towering 200 storey blocks, and find themselves trapped. Unable to leave, with their options narrowed to a violent death or killing every single one of the gun-toting bad guys sent to make sure they never leave, the two Judges fight their way to the top floor and the head honcho, psychopathic ganglord Ma Ma (Lena Headey, Game of Thrones).
The Dredd plot bears more than an unfortunate resemblance to The Raid, a superb adrenaline rush of a movie released in the not too distant past. Made around the same time, Dredd has the bad luck of being released second, and the coincidental similarity may put some off. But Dredd is a very different movie, a pared down sci-fi action flick less interested in deliriously inventive fight scenes as it is in the sort of muscular, brutal action that used to be the calling card of Paul Verhoeven. Think Die Hard, but starring Robocop. As Dredd and his rookie charge ascend the block, scene after scene of truly brutal violence detonates before your eyes, occasionally in gorgeous slo-mo 3D, framed as the effect of a new drug that’s sweeping the city, the production of which forms the basis of the plot (such as it is). Heads meet bullets with frightening regularity, throats are crushed, hapless bad guys fall all two hundred storeys of the block to a grisly end and Dredd’s wonderful gun, which fires six kinds of bullet, is put to extensive and entertaining use.
Of all the criticisms aimed at the first film, the fact that Dredd took his helmet off was both the most widely repeated and the least important. Karl Urban has said that the first question he asked the producers when he was offered the role in the new film was "does he take his helmet off?", and was set to turn it down if they said yes. That's nice to hear if you're a fan of the comic (in which his face is never seen), but it doesn't, by itself, guarantee he'll be much cop in the role. Early leaked shots of him in the helmet and uniform looked a bit naff, and many braced themselves for an embarrassing fluff of a movie that would, surely, forever bury the prospect of a faithful and worthwhile adaptation of the most iconic character in British comics. Happily, that isn't the case, and Urban makes for a fine Dredd: a tall, rangy, man-shaped block of controlled aggression and, fittingly for a character so utterly sure of himself, essentially unchanged at the end of the movie. The occasional flash of deadpan humour aside, character development is left almost entirely in the lap of Thirlby, who handles it well enough, making Anderson the most sympathetic figure on screen by about a million miles.
Whatever the flaws of the Stallone movie were (terrible script, annoying comedy sidekick), it looked great, bringing Mega City One to life in a way that the comparatively meagre budget of the new film can't match. Sensibly, Dredd 3D doesn't try to, but the surreal madness of the city, so often the focus in the comic, is almost entirely absent, as are many of the satirical elements of the world. Instead, Travis concentrates on the dour grit of the setting, the grim cage of crime and violence in which Dredd has found his calling.
No limp attempt to coin a catchphrase, no teeth-grindingly irritating sidekick, no deep moral lessons to be learned: Dredd 3D avoids the pitfalls of its predecessor and brings the dysfunctional, dystopian world of the comic to glorious life in a lean, hungry ninety minutes of brutal violence and black humour. Not for the squeamish, but terrific fun for everyone else.
Dredd official website