The 1995 Judge Dredd movie starring Sylvester Stallone remains a guilty pleasure adventure for plenty of action fans, not to mention a never ending Internet meme generator, but fell short of expectations for many comic book diehards. While Stallone may have been taking the role seriously, the campy one-liners and melodramatic character interaction undercut some of the most enjoyable qualities in the Judge Dredd character – namely a ruthless (and faceless) judge, jury, and instant executioner.
Rising above the standard skepticism surrounding franchise reboots, fans as well as action lovers remained cautiously optimistic about director Pete Travis and star Karl Urban’s Dredd 3D. Despite the optimism, early plot synopses and feature trailers drew strong comparisons to the premise of Gareth Evans’ Indonesian hit, The Raid: Redemption - about a team of cops that must fight their way through an apartment complex, one level at a time, to arrest a merciless drug lord – causing some moviegoers to worry that Dredd was little more than an uninspired franchise reboot fashioned onto the premise of a lesser known (but more original) film production.
Dredd was actually scripted long before The Raid became a breakout hit but, considering comparability, the film is now faced with an even steeper challenge. So, does Dredd manage to deliver its own action-packed (and memorable) thrill ride – one that successfully rebrands Judge Dredd as the gritty character longtime fans remember?
Fortunately, the answer is: yes. Dredd delivers – in a big way. There’s no doubt the film shares plot similarities with The Raid, but for every jaw-dropping knife fight in Evans’ film, Travis offers a comparably fun gun battle (and plenty of iconic Dredd scowl). Ultimately, Dredd is a grounded action experience – relying heavily on the titular character’s physicality and gruff personality to keep things entertaining. There are some fast-paced set pieces (such as the opening motorcycle chase) and loads of slick visuals (thanks to the “Slo-Mo” drug at the center of the plot) but instead of over the top action, moviegoers are treated to a smart combination of entertaining character moments, an intriguing near future backdrop, and thin but enjoyable plot points that make room for Dredd to take center stage – dispatching one thug after another in a variety of brutal conflicts.
Instead of spending time introducing audience members to a backstory of how Dredd became the most feared Judge in Mega-City One, the film presents the character (much like in the comics) as a faceless force of nature that will stop at nothing to enact justice and protect innocent lives. When Dredd and a would-be Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) respond to a series of homicides in the “Peach Trees” slum block, the pair begin an investigation that threatens infamous drug kingpin Madeline Madrigal – aka Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), whose “Slo-Mo” is quickly becoming the narcotic of choice in the city. In an effort to retain her control over Peach Trees, Ma-Ma locks down the 200 story slum – and offers a sizable bounty to any resident who can kill the Judges. With nowhere to escape, and no backup, Dredd and Anderson are forced to fight their way through Peach Trees – clearing the complex one floor at a time in an against all odds attempt to free Mega-City One from Ma-Ma’s grasp.
Anyone looking for a deep Batman Begins character piece will likely be underwhelmed by the storyline in Dredd – as the movie is significantly more interested in the crisis at hand rather than trials the Judge may have faced in the past. Travis is unapologetic in this approach – as even Anderson appears to know better than to dig around behind Dredd’s helmet. However, Dredd has never been a character that needed a lot of exploration – and the narrow focus of the film allows for an unapologetic (and fun) opportunity to watch the Judge, armed with limited resources and ammunition, react to a variety of challenging circumstances. Urban, who never takes off his helmet during the entire film, embodies the dry humor and cold wit of Dredd at every turn – with a gravelly voice, imposing physicality, and an unrelenting/iconic frown.
Thirlby as Anderson is also a smart juxtaposition for the callous and veteran Dredd. The actress offers a “rookie” perspective, while appearing at home with the violence around her, assisting in teaching the audience about this version of Mega-City One and the Judges – without in-your-face exposition that might otherwise inundate the action. Despite her inexperience and smaller frame, Anderson has the added benefit of psychic abilities that lead to a number of the film’s most entertaining moments. Headey’s Ma-Ma, on the other hand, is mostly presented as a MacGuffin – a problem that must be addressed – more than a multilayered person. Travis provides a backstory for the character and she serves her function in the larger Dredd plot (to regularly instigate the Judges) but is, without a doubt, underserved by the final film. Ma-Ma’s characterization won’t bother most viewers, but next to captivating versions of Dredd and Anderson, the villain falls a bit flat – especially with a talented actress like Headey (Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones) in the role.
As mentioned, the action in Dredd is grounded and there are no giant robot fights this round. Travis relies almost entirely on practical effects – letting the characters and explosions sell the film experience. Moviegoers who are easily wooed by style-over-substance CGI action fare (like Resident Evil: Retribution) might be underwhelmed by the, at times, limited scope of Dredd‘s action sequences. Instead, the movie focuses directly on its titular character, following the Judge through one explosive hurdle after another. The conflicts are fun, and considering the heroes are significantly outnumbered and low on ammunition, each quarrel presents a different side of Dredd and Anderson’s respective skill sets – allowing the movie to showcase Dredd’s ingenuity instead of dropping him into one brainless gunfight after another.
Dredd is showing in 2D and 3D theaters, and while many moviegoers might be skeptical about the premium upcharge, the 3D is worth the added price. The Slo-Mo drug sequences are especially enjoyable in 3D and, for the most part, the film makes smart (and even artistic) use of the format. Admittedly, a good chunk of the movie takes place in tight hallways where the effect is dialed down but a number of key sequences are successfully enhanced by the 3D – meaning some 2D Dredd viewers could feel as though they missed out on the full experience.
Action fans who expect deep character exploration or over the top CGI visuals might be somewhat underwhelmed by Dredd. However, Travis and Urban were intentional in their approach to the fan favorite hero, delivering a faithful Judge Dredd interpretation and smart Peach Trees “sandbox” – where the characters engage in a variety of tense conflicts. One of 2012′s biggest surprises, Dredd 3D offers an extremely enjoyable action ride and, for some, might even stand as one of Hollywood’s most entertaining comic book adaptations.
If you’re still on the fence about Dredd 3D, check out the trailer below:
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Dredd 3D episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Dredd 3D Spoilers Discussion.
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Dredd 3D is Rated R for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content. Now playing in 3D and 2D theaters.