One of the biggest complaints fans had with 1995’s Judge Dredd was that the title character, played by Sylvester Stallone, wasn’t wearing his helmet for much of the film. This went against what was established in the original comic strip by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; you saw nothing more than his nose and mouth. I haven’t so much as glanced at a single panel of the strip. I have, however, seen Dredd 3D, a remake of sorts. The diehards out there who might be reading this will be happy to know that title character, now played by Karl Urban, keeps his helmet on the entire time. He also spends pretty much the whole film speaking in a monotone growl, his mouth permanently grimaced. Stallone did the same thing, even though his eyes were plainly visible. Is this consistent with the comic book character? I have no idea. To be perfectly honest, I don’t much care.
Judge Dredd was seriously flawed, but at least it maintained a certain degree of fun. I cannot say the same thing about Dredd 3D. It’s an unpleasant experience – a film dictated less by story and more by excessive depictions of violence and gore. There are certain scenes that, visually speaking, look like a cross between The Matrix and a Sam Peckinpah film, the action reduced to agonizing slow motion in uncomfortable close-up shots. Bullets fly through cheeks, for example, sending explosions of blood out into our field of vision. Bodies break through panes of glass and fall hundreds of stories while tiny shards glisten all around them. You can say that all this is competent on a technical level, but it certainly isn’t something most people would enjoy watching. It doesn’t help that the color palette is muddy, which, given the picture-dimming side effects of the 3D process, is problematic for those who want to see what’s going on.
The setting is a future America. Most of the land has been irradiated to the point of inhabitability, which is why it has been called the Cursed Earth. The remaining segments of the population have been crowded into a vast metropolises ravaged by crime. One of them, dubbed Mega-City One, is located on the east coast and is home to 800 million people. This is where our story takes place. Law and order are no longer separate entities in the justice system; both are applied to specially trained enforcement officers known as Judges, who not only apprehend criminals but also serve as their judge, jury, and executioner. This means that they can sentence you for your crimes while they’re still on the scene – and in many cases, the sentence is instantaneous death. Their police gear includes a prominently-displayed badge, a machinegun that requires a DNA match in order to work properly, and the aforementioned helmet.
The plot is eerily reminiscent of The Raid: Redemption, which has already made my mid-year worst-of list and is likely to earn a spot on my year-end list. On the same day Judge Dredd is assigned to evaluate a rookie Judge named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who has psychic abilities, both respond to a triple homicide at a 200-story slum tower, where a merciless drug lord and former prostitute named Madeline Madrigal, or Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), has taken control. A feral woman with a scarred face and a propensity towards murder, torture, and mutilation, she orders the residents back into their units and for all available members of her clan to murder the Judges. She then has the building sealed off from any more intruders. Dredd and Anderson make their way up the monstrous complex to Ma-Ma’s lair, repeatedly running into thugs with guns and getting into shootouts.
They eventually arrest Kay (Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma’s hitmen, who spends the rest of his screen time believing what he does is no worse than what Dredd or any other Judge does. Admittedly, this character is given an especially good scene, one in which Anderson uses her mental abilities to bring him into his own mind and really mess with him. It only lasts around thirty seconds to a minute, and yet even that short amount of time is devoted to a clever premise, appropriately surreal images, and some deliciously witty zingers. If only the rest of the film had matched the appeal of that one scene, during which director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland allowed the material to transcend itself. Rather than a bloody shoot-’em-up, they instead went for genuine craft.
Although I’m not recommending this movie, specific aspects of it are worthy of attention. Let me start by asserting that Karl Urban is an infinitely better actor than Sylvester Stallone; the revamped Judge Dredd character does occasionally work in a sardonic remark or two, but he’s no longer the comical, muscle-bound, action/adventure archetype he was in the 1995 film. Furthermore, in spite of my reservations with the 3D and the dingy color scheme, we are treated to some good visuals. One of my favorites is when Ma-Ma, high on a mind-altering synthetic drug called Slo-Mo, lays in a bathtub and lifts her right arm out of the water. And although I made a comparison to The Raid: Redemption, Dredd 3D is nowhere near as bad as that film. Nevertheless, it’s not all that good, either. I’m well aware that certain movies thrive on violence, but in this particular case, I see no reason why it had to as explicit as it was.