“Dredd 3D” is a meat grinder of a flick that assaults the audience’s sensory organs with wave after wave of mayhem, death and gratuitousness. This is a movie that aspires to the ne plus ultra of rated R, possessing qualities that will surely enshrine it as a cult favorite but damn it for those who want more than full-fledged viscerality. Forget the Stallone version from 1995: “Dredd 3D” is the true heir to its comic book source.
Judge Dredd was a comic book character formulated in the 1970s, and the fictional milieu he inhabits (Mega-City One) was no doubt influenced by visions of urban decay and inner-city drug pandemic. In this future, Judges are police officers who respond to crimes, dispense sentences, and execute if (frequently) necessary. The movie follows Dredd (Karl Urban) and a rookie trainee with psychic powers (Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby). The pair responds to a triple homicide in a two hundred-story housing complex called Peach Tree Gardens. What starts out as a simple perp arrest quickly becomes more high stakes when Dredd discovers that a drug queenpin by the name of Mama (Lena Headey) rules Peach Tree—and she will stop at nothing to see Dredd and Anderson dead.
Near-future dystopia is a favored playground of summer action movies, which can dilute the richness and credibility of this sci-fi gestalt. “Dredd 3D” does well, however, in imagining the deterioration of Mega-City One. An opening scene sets the tone when Dredd neutralizes (i.e. melts the head of) a fugitive who has shot up a mall and taken a hostage. Shortly thereafter, an announcer states that the food court will re-open in thirty minutes and we get a tight shot of automated cleaners sweeping the corpses from the floor. Presto: memorable dystopia.
Director Pete Travis also uses 3D in a story-forward manner rather than to merely raise ticket prices with throwaway gimmicks. The drug in “Dredd 3D” is called Slo-Mo and Travis conjures its effects by having glowing particles effervesce on screen, with color schemes veering from drabness to iridescent distortion. Mixing this with slow-motion action generates a queasily potent sensation. The tower that Dredd and Anderson must fight through also gets the 3D treatment as a disconcerting number of people are thrown over the rails, the camera eye along with them.
Some have noticed that “Dredd 3D” resembles “The Raid: Redemption” (see Eric’s review here) since both involve police entering a building, getting trapped, and fighting their way to escape. The similarities are striking, but at its core “Dredd 3D” is quite different. For one, the script (by Alex Garland, also of “28 Days Later”) spends time on Anderson’s evolution from a doe-eyed police rookie to a post-training day veteran, aware of shades of gray in the black and white letters of the law. Anderson’s empathetic perspective inserts a small counterbalance to the large dosages of explosions and gunfire throughout the movie. Anderson also acts as a foil to Dredd, which brings more out of each character. In comparison, “The Raid” was more a pure realization of high octane action unadulterated by secondary concerns of characterization and reflection.
Performances were somewhat of a mixed bag. Considering that Judge Dredd’s face is always obscured by a dehumanizing, death’s head of a helmet, Karl Urban does a great job in evincing emotion. The operative emotion being teeth-gnashing fury. The unhelmeted Ms. Thirlby communicates with her expressions enough to draw viewers into her desperate reality. At the same time she exudes a remoteness that helps us swallow the unlikelihood of Anderson being a mutant psychic.
Ms. Headey, on the other hand, was miscast. Sometimes she pulls off the psycho head honcho with flying colors, but then she seems a glacial beauty who wears psychosis like the obviously prosthetic scars on her face. Wood Harris plays a gang underling who gets a fair chunk of screen time, but sadly is wasted. Given his role on “The Wire” as a shrewd criminal mastermind, Mr. Harris could easily have pulled off a more interesting character than a bumbling trog.
The bottom line however is that “Dredd 3D” delivers, from the gritty rawness of the fight scenes (no choreographed beauty here, just brutal effectiveness), to the cathartic payback at the end. Complemented by spare, utilitarian dialogue and an edgy, riff-laden soundtrack, this movie makes police fascism look ineluctably seductive and immensely entertaining. Intriguingly, Garland mentioned in an interview that he would like to explore the disturbing affiliation of the good guy with fascism (see also “Dirty Harry”) should a Dredd sequel be launched. Let’s hope he gets the chance.
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