Karl Urban (at least I think it's Karl Urban -- he never takes off his helmet) hits his one note well, hard and often. As Judge Dredd, he's a stern one-man justice machine in a dystopian megapolis, part of a woefully understaffed police force that zips among enormous city-state, 200 story apartment blocks, threatening a term in an "iso-cube," but mostly bullet-blasting perps in ever resourceful ways. Just when you thought you'd seen every way for brains to splatter across the screen in 3D, 'Dredd' comes up with something new.
This new adaptation (screened at Comic-Con 2012 in San Diego) of the British comic character is one part sly Verhoeven-esque satire, one part visual whirlwind and one part decent-enough, but basic, action picture.
After an opening chase that lays out the Judges' rules of engagement (see someone committing a crime: kill them) we meet Olivia Thirlby's Anderson. She failed the Judge aptitude test, but due to a childhood bordering the radiation containment zone, she's a "mutie" and has powers of extra sensory perception. She's given one day to prove herself as Urban's ride-along. As it happens, this is the day they'll stumble into the roughest block in the city -- the Peach Trees.
The Peach Trees is ruled by Lena Headey's Ma-Ma - a ruthless gang-leader with a monopoly on Slo-Mo, the hottest new drug in this miserable future. Slo-Mo is no doubt harmful to one's health, but it does wonders for 'Dredd's' cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The narcotic (whose delivery method is the same as an asthma inhaler, in a possible design nod to the film's comic book roots) causes the brain to perceive time at 1% normal speed. This makes for a number of shootout scenes that are reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaalllllly cool.
The shootouts come once Ma-Ma puts a lockdown on the Peach Trees and orders all of its 75,000 inhabitants to either kill the two lawmen or stay the hell out of the way. Urban must therefore make his way to the top level and take out the boss if he's ever to escape. His gruff, deadpan delivery mixed with a lack of hesitancy to put a bullet in your face ought to keep most people from accusing him of basically taking the same plot from 'The Raid.'
While Urban is essentially a block of concrete with a round, shiny head, 'Dredd' makes decent use out of its side characters. Wood 'Avon Barksdale' Harris plays a detained prisoner who tries to play mindgames with the rookie Thirlby. (She, of course, being a telepath, is a hard one to fluster.)
The best performance in the film, however, is Headey's Ma-Ma. Looking like a cross between Joan Jett and Sandra Bernhard, she isn't, alas, given much time center stage. Her few moments, though, are devilishly milked, making her one of the best screen villains of the year.
I've got to give 'Dredd' some credit for its fundamental delight in being fascist. It makes 'Dirty Harry' look like '12 Angry Men.' Unlike 'Starship Troopers,' the satirical winks, while existent, are few and far between. 'Dredd' takes it on faith that you'll know that this is, you know, a bad way for a criminal justice system to behave, then lets you see what a body smashing into concrete from 200 stories above looks like in extreme slow motion. There's a moment, just a moment, where you think the movie is gonna' wimp out, but this thread is quickly dropped. From a badass POV, that's cool -- from a "what the hell's wrong with our culture?" angle, I'm not so sure.
So 'Dredd' borders on being a blast. I didn't come out of the 3D screening at Comic-Con 2012 bursting with enthusiasm, but I did giggle most of the time. It's a ballsy picture and I was impressed with its economic world-building. (These apartment blocks have everything in them -- except showers, apparently. Everyone's so sweaty in the horrible future!) While there are slips into substandard predictability, the film is quick to snap back to another whacked-out ESP session or hyperstylized slo-mo shoot 'em up. All told, it's not dreadful.
[Editor's Note -- The above review is in response to an unfinished screening of 'Dredd 3D' that was displayed at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. To see our full review of the theatrical version, click here.]
'Dredd' hits theaters September 21.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.