Silver Screen: Dredd 3D *1/2
Like Looper, Judge Dredd 3D is a sci-fi movie set in a dystopian future where an antihero executes people for a living. (Also like Looper, it features an absolutely superfluous subplot about the development of psychic powers via mutation.) But despite their on-paper similarities, the two could hardly be more different. Looper is a semi-successful effort to recombine familiar genre elements into something with at least the veneer of novelty, while Dredd is a retreat into the past.
For all the movie's flashy effects and stylized slow-motion shots, Dredd 3D feels not just old-school but old, outmoded, and obsolete.
Judge Dredd is based on a popular British comic-book character from the anthology series 2000 A.D. Though Dredd debuted in 1977, it channeled the law-and-order spirit of Reaganism and Thatcherism, both parodying and hyperbolically espousing conservative notions of justice.
Many American moviegoers may only be familiar with Judge Dredd from the god-awful 1995 movie version starring Sylvester Stallone, a bland, cleaned-up action movie featuring goofy comic sidekick Rob Schneider. Director Pete Travis's new adaptation, Dredd 3D-- its name no doubt attempting to separate it from the Stallone version-- far better captures the spirit and tone of the source material. It's still not very good.
The lower third of Karl Urban's face stars as Judge Dredd, an elaborately empowered police officer in Mega City One, a sprawling metropolis that occupies a sizable chunk of the Eastern seaboard and now contains all of the U.S. population. The rest of America is an irradiated wasteland. Inside the walls of Mega City, life is scarcely easier. Crime runs rampant and gangs control the massive skyscrapers that essentially function as autonomous city-states.
On a day he's training a new rookie Judge, the delicate and seemingly ill-suited Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), Dredd is summon to the Peach Trees building, a two-hundred-story slum controlled by the ruthless Ma-Ma gang. Their leader is Marlena Madrigal (Lena Headey from Game of Thrones and The Sarah Connor Chronicles), a disfigured former prostitute whose cold calculations and savagery have helped her consolidate all the gangs in the tower. She's slinging the next big designer drug, Slo-Mo, an inhaler that affects the user exactly how it sounds. A shootout leaves one of her top lieutenants (The Wire's Wood Harris) in Dredd's custody. To keep him from confessing the details of her operation, she has the building sealed off and puts a bounty on her former operative and the Judges.
It doesn't help that Welsh-born director Gareth Evans already made great action movie about a badass cop trapped in a tenement building full of gangsters in the Indonesian crossover hit The Raid: Redemption. Even if its plot didn't already echo a recent (and far superior) film, Dredd 3D wouldn't work because the action paradigm has shifted. Keanu Reeves bent bullet trajectories with his mind, Yimou Zhang's combatants perform martial-arts ballets against vibrant backdrops like paintings in motion, and superheroes soar across rooftops. A guy with a nearly endless supply of bullets coldly mowing down a couple of busloads worth of extras is downright anachronistic.
Not only is Dredd of a different era, he works much better on paper than film. As in the 2000 A.D. comics, he never once takes off his helmet. The whole faceless-icon-of-justice bit works a lot better in short serial form than in an hour-and-a-half-long movie with no emotional center; even Robocop had some vestigial flesh and sentiment. Dredd is more idea than person, and though Karl Urban has the jawline and the sneer down pat, there's almost literally nothing he can do to make the character more than the hand that holds the gun that's the real star of the movie.
Headey's villainous Ma-Ma is the movie's lone interesting character. It's an interesting choice to take a gorgeous actress like Headey and genuinely rough her up with a red-puckered scar on one cheek, hair chopped haphazardly short, and chipped gray teeth. Her beauty occasionally overpowers the prosthetics, but its distant flickers beneath the scowls and scar tissue only render her more monstrous. A movie about her rise to power would be infinitely more interesting than the one with which we are presented, one where she, the lone character with any significant motivation, is cannon fodder for the physical embodiment of sophomoric notions of justice.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.