Review: ‘Dredd 3D’ offers up a grimy hyper-violent faithful take on the comic icon

For many Americans, 1995’s Danny Cannon film “Judge Dredd” was their introduction to the long-running English comic book, and it managed to poison the well for the character almost completely.  Hopefully enough time has passed that when audiences walk into “Dredd 3D” later this month, the 1995 version is no longer an issue for them and they’re able to just give this new film a shot without any baggage.

I’d heard good things after the Comic-Con screenings of the film, and it seems to be picking up a head of steam as far as critical reactions are concerned.  There were rumbles about behind-the-scenes difficulties during production, but none of that is visible in the final product, which is a hyper-violent action film that manages to perfectly capture a sort of world-weary attitude that really sells the reality of life in Mega City 1.  Karl Urban’s performance as Judge Dredd, a legendary figure in the city, is suitably grim and badass, and there’s not a hint of ego in the way he vanishes into that costume and that permanent scowl.  We see one quick encounter between Dredd and a van full of genuinely stupid criminals at the start of the film, one of them taking hits of a drug called Slo-Mo that seems to almost freeze time for the user.  Right away, you get a sense of just how far the film will go in terms of violence when Dredd fires what is essentially a flare into a guy’s mouth, causing his whole head to catch on fire from the inside.  It’s a crazy image, and just a hint of what’s ahead.

Many people made a comparison between last year’s bone-breaking martial arts action film “The Raid” and “Dredd 3D” when the first trailer appeared earlier this year, and there is some structural similarity.  The films were in production at the same time, though, and I think it’s pretty clear that one did not borrow from the other.  They both take a similar premise, at least in broad strokes, and then play them out in totally different ways.  Here, Dredd is given a rookie to assess in the field, and he’s warned that she didn’t quite pass the entry exam.  She’s being given a shot, though, because she has displayed some promising psychic talents, and so Dredd agrees to take Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) into the field with him.  They respond to what sounds like a fairly routine homicide call at a megastructure called Peach Trees, a 200-story concrete housing block that is home to 75,000 people and a ferocious gang called The MaMa Clan.  MaMa is played by Lena Headey, and she also seems to have left vanity at the door, wearing a disturbing facial scar and disgusting fake teeth for the role.  She’s the creator of the Slo-Mo drug, and when she realizes that Dredd and Anderson have picked up one of her lieutenants, Kay (Wood Harris), she orders a full lockdown of the building so they can’t leave, and she tells everyone in the building that she won’t open the doors again unless the two Judges are both killed.

The rest of the movie plays out inside, a power struggle as well as a literal fight for life, and Alex Garland’s script is very canny in the way it continually ups the stakes and creates different ways to play out what is essentially a dude with a gun killing people.  Pete Travis, best known for “Vantage Point,” makes the most of his budget, and MegaCity 1 as well as Peach Trees are incredibly well-designed, and I love that the world is so ugly.  So often, even when making dystopian visions, movies err on the side of the cool and the pretty.  This summer’s “Total Recall” is a good example of a future that is meant to be oppressive but which actually seems fairly slick and pretty.  There’s nothing slick or pretty about the world of “Dredd 3D.”  It looks awful.  It looks hot.  It looks like it is decaying right before our eyes.

I like the way the film handles the Slo-Mo drug, too.  While it’s definitely portrayed as a dangerous narcotic, it also shows how much of an escape it is from the awful life that these people are trapped in.  I think it’s an interesting approach considering how automatically most films treat drugs as a pure evil.  The movie never feels like it’s scolding.  Instead, those few moments when we see the effects of the drug through the eyes of the users, including MaMa in an unguarded moment in a tub, are the only moments of visual beauty, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle manages to make these into small pockets of visual wonder.  And the 3D is used well, creating a claustrophobic sense of environment as we make our way through floor after floor of Peach Trees.

Ultimately, your reaction to “Dredd 3D” will depend on your tolerance for an almost breathtaking level of graphic violence.  People are skinned, burnt, blown apart, and thrown off 200-story balconies, and Travis captures every horrifying detail of it.  There are some jet-black laughs built in, but it’s not treated as a joke.  Travis shoves your nose into it, making sure you get a tactile sense of how awful this life can be.  I sincerely hope that the movie does well enough that we see more films with Urban, Thirlby, and Garland all back to expand on what they’ve done here.  There are more than 30 years worth of stories to draw from, and “Dredd 3D” proves that this creative team is more than up to the challenge of bringing the world to life.

“Dredd 3D” arrives in theaters September 21st.