When I heard that a new Judge Dredd film was on the way a while back, my initial reaction was something along the lines of "That's freakin' weird, man!" The British comic icon has been around since 1977, but remains relatively unknown to most. In America, the character is most recognizable from a poorly received film from 1995, in which Sylvester Stallone took on the lead role and growled about being the law. To be honest, there are some people who were teenagers in the mid-90s (myself included) who will argue that the Stallone film is a blast for all the wrong reasons. But fans of the character wanted more, and now they have it.
A new story with no ties to the previous film, Dredd lets Karl Urban - whose face would be recognizable from The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek if the film would show it - put on the trademark uniform of the Judge and re-introduce viewers to the world of Mega-City One. Opening narration explains how most of the United States has been eradicated and now exists only as "The Cursed Earth", while hundreds of millions of people are literally stacked into these mega-cities. Dredd and a rookie Judge - the less scary-named Anderson, played by Juno's Olivia Thirlby - end up traveling into one of the mega-structures in the mega-city when some drugged-up bodies get thrown down 200 stories and splatter in a courtyard, and the fun picks up from there.
(I suppose this is the point where I should point out that the premise is eerily similar to this year's new action sensation, The Raid: Redemption. Many have cried foul - or harsher things - as they see two movies about high rise buildings and a gauntlet of battles released months apart, but there's no rip off here in my eyes. I loved The Raid, but I'm not going to let that stop me from enjoying a movie that happens to have a similar set. OK?)
Inside the building we find a pretty standard future gang, filled with miscreants and dirty faced people (at least by sci-fi movie standards) and led by a disfigured ex-prostitute/drug lord known simply as Ma-Ma. She's played by Lena Headey, of 300 and The Sarah Conner Chronicles, and her drug of choice is a new future concoction called "Slo-Mo". This drug, administered through a simple inhaler, slows the user's body down to 1% of real-time - that's not a joke, the movie actually says it - which allows for several annoying shots of things moving really slow and sparkling and looking incredibly goofy when compared to the rest of the gritty action film. These slow-motion scenes are overused early in the story and hurt the film's charm, but the director smartly pumps the brakes on this until the right moment in the final act. In fact, that final moment of Slo-Mo action kind of made the whole thing worthwhile.
The rest of the film is Urban and Thirlby making their way through the 200 story tower, which means a lot of Urban growling one word sentences from beneath his trademark helmet - unlike Stallone, the actor stays true to Dredd lore and never removes his headpiece - and a lot of Thirlby being the unsure and human piece of the puzzle. The rookie judge - helmetless due to some psychic "powers" that the film uses to escape from plot holes - doesn't feel like an add-on, and actually overshadows the mostly-silent title character in regard to the film's plot. The performance won't win many awards, but it's noteworthy that this miniature girl stands tall in a brutal movie about the future's Dirty Harry.
If you're just here to see a guy dressed as Judge Dredd being snarky and blowing people up, you're going to get that too. Urban never wavers as he portrays the antihero with a one-note tone of cynicism. He also carries his Lawgiver weapon - a cool future tool that the film plays with wonderfully - with poise, and he fills the costume quite well. This isn't the most demanding role from a physical standpoint - unlike many modern action films, hand-to-hand combat is almost nonexistent - but Dredd still looks and acts like someone I'd be scared to meet in a back alley if I'd done something naughty. And it's nice to see a film that still relies on good old fashioned guns instead of choreographed dance fighting.
Fans of blood splatter should find everything they desire when it comes to the action. Shot in 3D - though I, out of spite for the gimmick, watched the 2D version - there's plenty of computer generated arterial spray that is designed for a full "in your face" effect. There's still plenty to see without the 3D, with the most impressive sequence coming near the finale as Anderson and Dredd shoot their way through a lot of nameless assailants. The film moves at a manic pace, and if you blink you might miss some of the carnage. I commented after the film that it felt like the shortest movie I've ever seen, and I was surprised to find that it ran 95 minutes when I checked after the showing.
Dredd meets its simple goals, staying true to the established character while providing a modern edge to the gritty action plot. I wished that there was more of a focus on the science fiction aspects of the story, but at the same time I realize that more exposition would have killed the pace the film was going for. While the story could have focused on being an origin story, like we've seen so many times before in the comic adaptation world, it seems like director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland decided to throw caution to the wind and put everything on the line for one high-octane bullet storm. It worked for me, and I think anyone looking for a bit of popcorn violence should enjoy this Judge Dredd tale.