In a year already stuffed to the brim with largely unimaginative tent-pole reboots — The Bourne Legacy, Total Recall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Prometheus — it seems as though the last thing we need right now is another. So imagine my surprise then to discover that Dredd 3D is not only a highly enjoyable genre exercise which unashamedly embraces its gritty and simplistic comic book origins, but also the best of this year’s crop of recycled pop culture. The film — which stars Kiwi export Karl Urban as the iconic titular character, alongside rising actress Olivia Thirlby and go-to genre lady Lena Headey — is a visually exciting and incredibly violent ride which should please fans of action films and 2000 AD comics alike, although those looking for any kind of resonant satire or emotional core have certainly come to the wrong place.
Adapted from the 2000 AD comic strip Judge Dredd by screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), Dredd 3D takes place in the dystopian Mega City One, a vast and violent metropolis on the east coast of the irradiated waste land formerly known as America. The only order in the crime-riddled city are the Judges, who act as judge, jury and executioner. The most legendary and feared of these is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), our permanently scowling anti-hero who is tasked at the outset with evaluating Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a promising young rookie who possesses rare psychic abilities but has been unable to pass the tests required to become a Judge. Before long the two are investigating a triple homicide connected to the distribution of the addictive drug “Slo-Mo”, which enables its users to experience reality at a fraction of its normal speed. This leads the Judges inside Peach Trees, a 200-story slum tower block controlled by a ruthless and sadistic drug lord known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who locks down the entire building once she discovers they have arrested one of her foot soldiers (Wood Harris). The remainder of the film’s relentless 98 minutes takes place within the tower’s confines as the Judges fight for survival against her heavily-armed soldiers, with only their neat multi-purpose guns and each other to rely on.
This set-up is a great way to mask a somewhat modest budget, and comparisons can’t help but be made to this year’s superior breakout action film The Raid: Redemption, which similarly restricted the majority of its spectacular setpieces to a grimy, claustrophobic tower block as its heroes fought their way to the top to take out the villain — no doubt comparisons could also be made to several shoot-em-up video games, not to mention Die Hard. Director Pete Travis (Endgame, Vantage Point) and his esteemed cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours, Antichrist) differentiate their film from The Raid and others by implementing a unique and remarkable visual style for the grisly-yet-poetic action sequences, recreating Slo-Mo’s effect for the audience as the trippin’ bad guys are blown away in stunningly-shot and brutally violent fashion. An obvious point of reference for the style would be Zack Synder’s super-stylised slow motion scenes in films such as 300 and Watchmen, which managed to visually recreate the look of their comic book sources, as well as the Wachowskis’ bullet-time sequences in The Matrix. While it’s arguably something of a gimmick by its umpteenth use, the Slo-Mo effect never feel as pointless here as it did in Snyder’s films since it is effectively tethered to the film’s narrative, and these blazing and hypnotic sequences of saturated colours really are something to behold, marking a thrilling update on the dated bullet-time effects and making good use of the immersion that 3D cinematography can provide. Despite the slo-mo connections to Snyder and the Wachowskis, Dredd‘s overwhelmingly gritty visual style and un-Hollywood locations — shot primarily in South Africa — bring to mind such cult favourites as Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (also lensed by Dod Mantle) more than they do any American blockbusters.
In a move which pays homage to the comic and wisely distances itself from the atrocious 1995 adaptation Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone, Dredd never removes his helmet throughout this film — another un-Hollywood and admirably faithful choice considering how desperate most modern comic adaptations are to appeal to everyone (e.g. The Amazing Spider-Man). Despite this physical obscurity, Urban’s minimalist portrayal of the gruff authority figure is memorable and amusing, taking equal inspiration from Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Peter Weller in RoboCop, and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight trilogy as he delivers cocky one-liners. As he proved with his great take on Bones in Star Trek, the versatile Urban is more than capable of bringing substance to an iconic character, and his Dredd is both rooted in realism and appropriately mythic. As his earnest sidekick, Thirlby — best known for her work in indie fare such as The Wackness and Margaret — manages to hold her own and proves to be a necessary foil to Dredd’s merciless rationality, lending some much-needed empathy and utlising an entirely different set of skills, which makes for an intriguing dynamic. The usually attractive Headey (Game of Thrones, 300) is nearly unrecognisable as the unsightly Ma-Ma — covered in scars and tattoos — and while her character is certainly cliché it’s a refreshing change to see the lead antagonist in a comic book film played by a woman, and she sinks her teeth into the outlandish role.
For all its lavish visuals and A-grade cast, Dredd is a B-movie through and through. However, unlike similarly fun and gratuitously violent genre flicks such as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop or George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, there is nothing in the way of social commentary to be found here. Garland’s script is peppered with humourously self-aware moments, including some one-liners so cheesy and great they seem to have been lifted from an ’80s action film, but there is little more than a passing suggestion that a fascistic state run by cops with total impunity might not be such a great thing. Travers’ film is also limited in scope thanks to its trimmed-down budget following a long-gestating development, resulting in only the slightest of glimpses of the sprawling Mega City One — hopefully the potential sequel will be given a licence to explore the physical and political post-apocalyptic landscapes some more (Garland has in fact hinted at such intentions).
These flaws and the film’s thin, formulaic plot — paired with its graphic R-rated violence — will likely turn off uninitiated and high-minded audiences, but there is a lot of fun to be had here and I think Dredd will likely become a cult favourite, as it possesses great crossover potential between comic enthusiasts, gamers and action/B-movie enthusiasts. Dredd certainly can’t compete with the likes of The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers, but to Travis and Garland’s credit they never try to and instead focus on delivering a visceral and undeniably badass reboot of a tarnished character with utterly mindless violence and spectacular visuals to boot. Which is arguably all that Dredd fans ever wanted.
Watch the trailer for Dredd 3D below.