Remakes are a dime a dozen these days, and given their quality it’s understandable that not many people will know or care about the new version of the cheesy cult classic staring Sylvester Stallone as a future cop in a dystopic world based on a British comic that satirized fascism. But this may change with Karl Urban (Bones from the new Star Trek) putting on the domed helm of Judge Dredd and assuming a growl that Clint Eastwood would be proud of.
He’s a new breed of Lawman who lives by a brutal code of justice that includes instant sentencing and the authorization of deadly force. Dredd is beyond simply imposing; as he marches down a corridor he’s the embodiment of absolute Law, showing no fear or hesitation. Dredd’s helmet turns his face into a brutal cipher, the only clue to his humanity being the gravely commands he issues like a drill sergeant.
Putting such a static character behind the wheel of an ultraviolent action blockbuster like this would regularly be too-over-the-top, but Dredd’s callous exterior and emotional-deadzoned nature is contrasted luckily by his trainee, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thrilby) She’s a rookie who goes without a helmet in order to better exercise her mind-wrecking psychic abilities that can reduce even a hard-edged gangbanger into a quivering mess. Her desire for a more reasonable justice contrasts her with Dredd, and her struggle with the realities of the Judge’s role provide an emotional grapple point to prevent the films bleak nature from becoming too pervasive.
The time is the irradiated future, the place is Mega-City One, a violent metropolis filled with civil unrest where the majority of the citizens live in Blocks, grungy skyscrapers that stick up like titanic tombstones made in the memory of the once proud city. The lone force for order is the Hall of Justice and its Judges, who patrol the city and enforce the unforgiving laws. Dredd and Anderson respond to a triple homicide from inside one with the inappropriately breezy title of “Peach Trees” that is quickly linked to the production of a mind-warping narcotic new on the streets labeled “Slo-Mo” which engages a glossy sheen over reality that is viewed at a snails pace.
When they capture one of the big dealers (Wood Harris from his role on The Wire as the legendary Avon Barksdale, staying wisely silent when Dredd is present, but ramping up the creepitude once it’s just Anderson and him) they find themselves on lockdown in an endless maze of hallways full of armed gang members and civilians alike, on orders from the head resident and producer of the drug to kill them or face her considerable wrath.
This creator of the hallucinogenic concoction is Madeline Madrigal, known by the deceptively innocent title “Ma-Ma,” a former prostitute who rules Peach Trees with a promise of horrific violence that lives in dangerously uninterested shark eyes, and with teeth like a mouthful of razors. Lena Headey’s (of Game Of Thrones fame) portrayal of her is restrained, her face scared and her hair a mess of urban tangles, and she lets her soft voice escape only when she knows that her appearance is not enough to inspire fear. Ma-Ma is a clear product of this desolate future, and so rather than playing her like a power-hungry madwoman, Headey makes her a demented predator who’s adapted to her power as a distributor, but is also captive by it as well.
Dredd 3D is, make no mistake, a brutal film, full of over-the-top gunplay, exploding skulls, and some mesmerizing shots of Slo-Mo violence that are almost closer to art than bloodshed. Judge Dredd navigates the dystopic tower with narry a second glance, but the viewer is dragged into a savage world of dreary corridors and spent shell casings, so gritty you can almost feel the shrapnel in your teeth. It’s also thrilling and caters to that old longing for destruction that 80s action films like Robocop and Die Hard had in spades.
The Slo-Mo scenes however are like bewitching fairies that alter the mood of the film into one of almost heavenly bliss. It really must be said that the conversion to 3D for these enhances them greatly, for once the unreality of the images works to immerse us in the photosensitive environment, with each moment spent in this tripped out world akin to witnessing an artist paint a work of art. When water hangs in the air, flowing from pattern to pattern like liquid diamond, it’s like watching a force of nature, and a scene involving a character falling from a high balcony is probably one of the most awe-inspiring and hauntingly poetic instance of filming I’ve seen so far this year.
I was ready to write off Dredd initially based on it’s nature of shoot first, then shoot later and don’t ask any questions either, but the screenplay has a high pedigree, coming from Alex Garland who was responsible for 28 Days Later as well as Sunshine. It’s a science fiction action film, and yet the elements of the world and the judge system are never put on the backburner like they were in the new Total Recall remake, and work instead to more fully envision what the world Dredd inhabits feels like. It really has it all, fast-pace action, slow-placed beauty, and a couple of delicious performances you can savor long after its over. Don’t dread the grim world that is Dredd.