Seventeen years is probably far too long after the fact to offer an apology to comic book fans for 1995’s abominable film adaptation of Judge Dredd. The good news is, after that extended leave of absence, American audiences have long since stopped wondering why the hell John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s grim lawman endures as one of Britain’s most popular comic book anti-heroes. Better still, 2012’s Dredd 3D wastes no time explaining why, which is just one of the reasons director Pete Travis’ Dredd proves a brutally efficient exercise in B-movie know-how.
Karl Urban—who’s no stranger to tightly wound sci-fi fare (including the unfairly maligned The Chronicles of Riddick) provides the scowl and chin of Judge Joseph Dredd—a total-law package professional who is clearly as disinterested in humoring his rookie partner as the script is in coddling its audience. A few lines of raspy Man with No Name narration, coupled with a superbly bleak establishing shot from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, are all the generosity afforded by the filmmakers toward understanding this world before it unleashes chase sequences and bursting heads. This is a film that aims squarely at respecting its source’s established fan base, and cares little for casualties who can’t hang on through its grindhouse paces.
The plot—as perfunctory as they come—finds the famous/infamous Dredd in the unenviable position of training the psychic new recruit, Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), whom the force wants added to their ranks despite her undesirable “mutant” status. In their dystopian metropolis of Mega City One—formerly the majority of America’s East Coast—Dredd and Anderson land a triple homicide call that places them squarely in the sights of notorious drug manufacturer and ruthless gang leader Ma Ma (A Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey). After the two judges are sealed within the building controlled by Ma Ma and her hundreds—make that thousands—of cannon fodder henchmen, there’s little question of what will follow; every shred of its “R” rating is earned as high-caliber bullets rip through faces in slow motion. But unlike Zach Snyder’s violence-fetishizing lens, there’s at least a nominal story component to Dredd beyond “Doesn’t this look cool?”
Though the competent, workmanlike approach to achieving the visceral thrills of the source material is excellently realized, it comes at the expense of sidelining Wagner and Ezquerra’s satirical background radiation of fascism’s consequences. While a few moments of gallows humor emerge—typically of the “Ouch!” variety—any subtext that might get in the way of servicing its adrenalized momentum is cordoned off, so as not to disturb the thrilling crime scene. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along. But this is not even an offense punishable by three days in an Iso-Cube. The rule of law by which audiences are meant to abide is laid out immediately and authoritatively, and—just in case you needed reminding—Dredd is the law.
Director: Pete Travis
Writers: Alex Garland, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2012