By Ben Rowe
The year is 2099. America is an irradiated wasteland. The East Coast is united in one sprawling urban metropolis, Mega-City One. The population lives under the rule of a totalitarian police state, controlled by the fascist Judges. Armoured, faceless and heavily armed, the Judges are the police, judge, jury and executioner all in one, dispensing sentences with extreme prejudice. And they are the heroes of the movie.
Dredd 3D is the second attempt to bring Judge Dredd, the classic comics anti-hero, to the screen. Karl Urban plays the titular Judge this time around, and unlike Sylvester Stallone — who played Dredd in the 1995 original — he isn’t so egotistical as to insist on taking his helmet off. Urban plays the entire film with his face obscured, just like in the comics. The film itself is British-made, which explains why it ‘gets’ the character of Dredd so much better than the earlier Hollywood version. Dredd has always been a satire of the stereotypical tough-talking, fast-shooting American vigilante hero — his society is one that saw Dirty Harry and read Punisher comics and said, “Yeah, that all sounds like a great idea!” The original comics creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra were the first individuals credited at the end of the film, and Wagner had script input and approval.
The plot is simple, playing like a day in the life of a Judge. Dredd is sent to clear out a high-rise apartment tower, all 200 levels of which are swarming with a criminal gang. The gang is producing a new drug called Slo-Mo, which alters users’ perception of time. Tagging along is Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, a rookie Judge and mutant psychic whom Dredd must instruct and assess. Dredd’s role in the film is as the faceless, emotionless arm of the law, so his character is like granite. Therefore, it is Anderson who goes through the main character arc of the film, her experiences transforming her from a rookie to a hardened warrior.
Dredd 3D is a good movie, shockingly so. It’s incredibly stylish, and was brilliantly shot in 3D. Standard aesthetic tropes like manipulation of colour saturation, speed of motion and the 3D itself are all used to further the story, rather than as gimmicks. The scenes involving the use of the Slo-Mo drug achieve a sort of grungy beauty. The action is fast, furious, ultraviolent and satisfying, with the cinematography clearly composed for depth. It plays like a modern version of RoboCop or Total Recall — perfectly in spirit of late ’80s sci-fi action classics — partially due to a pulsing synth-rock-industrial score by Paul Leonard-Morgan.
The production design is a mix of the future and the present, projecting a much more contemporary vibe than the art of the original comic, partially for what I suspect are budget reasons, but also partially due to a recent trend in sci-fi of eschewing genre trappings in favour of adopting more recognizable imagery and thus hitting closer to home emotionally. But then at other times Dredd 3D embraces its ’80s comics roots, with computer readouts that feel old-school yet futuristic.
Possibly the greatest surprise of the movie is the excellent cast: Urban is pitch-perfect as Dredd, but the real surprise is indie darling Thirlby as Anderson, who really sells her character’s journey from innocent to veteran. Lena Headey is magnetic as the queen of the drug cartel, and allows you to understand her character with a depth that doesn’t just exist in the dialogue alone. Wood Harris of The Wire makes a smashing appearance as a criminal lieutenant. All-in-all, Dredd 3D is a blast — a fun theatre experience that stays true to its comic book roots, embraces its R rating and manages to be smart and stylish at the same time.