Comic book anti-hero Judge Dredd has been brought to the silver screen before, in the notably loathed 1995 film adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That movie was critically panned due to a tangled script, bad lines, and too many liberties taken with Dredd source material. In 2012, Hollywood took another shot with the franchise, and managed to give Dredd the live-action presentation that he justly deserves.
'Dredd' is played Karl Urban, who brings his clockwork grimace and growl to a character that actually makes the best use of them. As part of an elite law enforcement unit known as The Judges, Dredd is tasked with patrolling the sprawling post-apocalyptic mega-tropolis called Mega-City One, dispensing quick and brutal on-the-spot justice according to established law. Armed with a sophisticated multi-functional sidearm called a Lawgiver, Dredd is both judge, jury, and if need be, executioner. As the story begins, Dredd is tasked with investigating Peach Trees, a 200 storey building which houses some of the worst known violent offenders in the city. At the top of the hill is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a cruel and sadistic psychopath who peddles the new designer drug "Slo-Mo," which seems to slow down a user's sense of time while giving them a euphoric high. Ma-Ma orders the brutal skinning of three dealers who are then unceremoniously thrown from the top of the building to the ground floor. Dredd arrives to investigate, but he isn't alone. Paired with him is Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), an unseasoned young Judge who failed initial aptitude tests, and is now being personally evaluated in the field by Judge Dredd. When Anderson and Dredd raid an apartment being used as a drug den, Anderson is able to use her powerful (and rare) psychic abilities to determine that one of the thugs was responsible for the execution of the three dealers. Fearing reprisal, Ma-Ma orders the lockdown of the entire Peach Trees building before Dredd and Anderson can exfiltrate their prisoner back to headquarters for interrogation. Alone and without backup, Judge Dredd becomes a one-man army against legions of Ma-Ma's armed criminals, while Anderson undergoes the biggest and most important test of her entire life.
As a comic book adaptation, 'Dredd' nails the source material quite well. Urban's Dredd is a singular-minded war machine, masquerading under the thin pretense of a law enforcement officer, and he's a great actor to bring the character to life, despite his narrow and largely linear progression. I had less faith in Olivia Thirlby and her petite body as ever being able to withstand the rigors of life as a Judge, but at least her character develops in a realistic and well thought out manner. Lena Headey is once again a standout, playing another socio/psychopath with stunning clarity and conviction. There's little that's sexy about her character, even when she's high on Slo-Mo and relaxing in a bath. Very good character choices, all around. The movie's plot is itself a rather straightforward one. There's little in the way of plot twists or complexity. It's essentially a movie about Dredd fighting his way to the top of a building, but that singular plot device is peppered with some fantastic and varied action sequences. Director Pete Travis has a tendency to go overboard on Slo-Mo (pardon the pun) shots, however, which are there seemingly as a means to drape the movie in a particular visual style. Dredd is also an extremely (and graphically) violent movie from start to finish, which will please hardcore action buffs. If you have a weak stomach, be warned. Explosive blasts tear through bodies, people are shot through their cheeks and mouths, and heads are cooked from the inside out by incendiary rounds. That's just some of the violence which continues to try and desensitize our society, and it's done realistically, not comic book-esque. It fits well with the gritty and nihilistic tone of the future Cursed Earth, and is certainly in line with the character of Judge Dredd, and what he must deal with on a daily basis. The movie is shot in a perfectly plausible tone. Mega-City One looks and feels like something that could definitely exist, and that's largely due to the people who inhabit it. The film's opening freeway chase is devoid of anything outlandish, and feels grounded in reality. This sets the tone for the main stage in the Peach Trees building, which befits today's culture of high rise condominiums and the need to pack a growing population into tighter and tighter spaces. In other words, what 'Dredd' lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in style. I would have liked to see a bit more ambition in the plot, however. No matter how you slice it, Judge Dredd is a wooden character with singular intent, and that's largely by design, but unless he's shooting things up, he isn't the most riveting character to watch. If nothing else, props should be given to the filmmakers for keeping Dredd's helmet on throughout the entire film, just as he does in the comics.
'Dredd' is hard to mark visually, due to being shot natively in 3D. I can't speak for the 3D experience as I don't have a 3D-equipped TV, but the standard 2D transfer is dirty. Very dirty. This could be seen as a benefit, given the nature of the film and its material, but if you're a fan of pristine transfers, this is going to be difficult to swallow. I'm told that the 3D edition doesn't have these problems, and it actually looks and feels more natural and realistic than the 2D transfer, thanks to stereoscopic design. I'm not the biggest advocate for 3D, as only Avatar has really managed to wow me with its deep and compelling visuals. I did see Dredd in 3D at the theaters, though I don't possess the memory of the experience well enough to make a direct comparison. I'm sure it's good, but I'm also sure that any film shot natively in 3D is going to look better in 3D. To each their own. Once again, the audio benefits tremendously from Blu-Ray technology. 'Dredd' is presented with nothing less than a DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 track, which can be expanded to utilize Neo:X technology for 11 channels of total sound. Overkill? Perhaps. My (admittedly) older speaker set isn't able to tackle anything on the scale of Neo:X, but it must be fantastic, given how great the standard 7.1 mix is. I dare say you can hear EVERYTHING in this film with crystal clear clarity. No expense was spared to make audiophiles wet their pants, and this is apparent once the louder action sequences fire up. Outside of those scenes, the sound mix becomes so atmospheric that it creates an immediate and effective grip on the viewer, which more than makes up for the spotty 2D video transfer. Special features get the shaft, clocking in at a dismal 40 minutes. Ironically, the topics I was most curious about, such as Dredd's gear, the design of Peach Trees, and filming in 3D, are all 3 minutes or less. Talk about a disappointment!
It's light years beyond the 1995 Stallone flick, that's for sure. 'Dredd' won't win any awards for being unique, or trying something new, but it's a damn fine action film which eclipses bigger 2012 contenders like the Expendables 2, John Carter, Wrath of the Titans, and Resident Evil: Retribution.