Karl Urban (Star Trek) is the gravelly voice of justice in Pete Travis’ Dredd 3D, a violent yet strangely beautiful new adaptation of the popular comic book character that blows away the nineties version – starring the inimitable Sylvester Stallone – with an incendiary straight to the face. The Raid meets Zack Snyder meets Robocop: this is the film that Judge Dredd fans have been waiting for.
In a post apocalyptic future, Mega City One stretches across the irradiated wasteland from Boston to Washington D.C, a grim, grey metropolis home to 800 million poor, unfortunate souls. A hotbed of criminal activity, the only thing standing between the city and anarchy are the Judges: highly trained super-cops, armed to the teeth, with the power to deliver sentences on the spot. Amongst the most feared of the lawmen is the eponymous Judge Dredd, a merciless and incorruptible man with a penchant for summary executions.
With a locked jaw and gravel in his throat, Urban overcomes the restriction of acting with half his face obscured to bringing a great sense of menace to the titular anti-hero; that the role doesn’t call for a great deal of range makes the nuances in his performance all the more impressive. More importantly, the New Zealand born actor nails every one of his one-liners, including Dredd’s iconic catch phrase that Stallone so notorious butchered. Across from him, Oliver Thirlby (The Darkest Hour) brings a sliver of humanity to the role of Judge Anderson, an anxious rookie and powerful psychic assigned to Dredd for some serious on-the-job training.
The first stop on the duo’s route is a homicide investigation at Peach Trees, a deceptively named 200-storey apartment slum ruled by the merciless drug lord “Mama” (Lena Heady; TVs Game of Thrones). Unimpressed by the law meddling in her business — especially when they arrest her second-in-command (Wood Harris; TVs The Wire) — Mama locks down the building and gives her tenants a grisly ultimatum: no one leaves Peach Trees until the two judges are dead.
If Dredd has one thing going against it, it’s that it was released in the same year as Gareth Evans’ The Raid, a mind-blowing Indonesian martial arts film with almost the exact same premise: a group of cops are trapped in a derelict high-rise and have to punch, kick and stab their way to the top. It’s safe to say that, even with the Judge’s considerable arsenal, Travis’ shoot ‘em up action doesn’t ever really come close to Evans’ immaculately choreographed action, and despite Heady’s proficiency in the role of a strong, calculating woman (see: 300, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Game of Thrones), Mama’s plan is too stupid from the get-go to take seriously, and her henchmen are utterly disposable.
That said, Dredd is still a visually impressive action film. The drug at the centre of Mama’s empire is called “Slo Mo”, a powerful narcotic that alters the brain’s perception so that it feels like time is passing at 1% of regular speed. Basically, it’s an excuse for Travis – along with his Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, Antichrist) – to indulge is scene after scene of hypnotically gratuitous slow motion. As Dredd’s bullets tear through faces and bodies fly through windows, the blood and glass hangs in the air like tiny gemstones. It’s gorgeous, in a gruesome kind of way, and also makes Dredd one of the very few live action movies to be actually heightened by 3D – whether it’s worth the increase in ticket price is a choice I’ll leave to you.
Admittedly, Dredd leaves most of source’s satirical edge by the wayside, favouring gore and grenades over statements about fascism or the concept of the police state. And frankly, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. You get the distinct impression that Travis – not to mention the studio – wanted Dredd to be nothing more than a succinct, satisfying and very bloody piece of escapist action, and to that end, you can’t really say it’s unsuccessful.