Dredd 3-D may look like a bit of an afterthought in this movie season — it’s yet another reboot that couldn’t find a spot in summer proper — but it actually comes with some serious pedigree. Director Pete Travis proved himself an underrated and versatile stylist with films like Vantage Point and Endgame, and producer Andrew MacDonald (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) are alumni of the Danny Boyle School of Techno Expressionism. Cross these sensibilities with the half-stoic, half-tongue-in-cheek character of Judge Dredd himself, an all-purpose post-apocalyptic American lawman (cop, judge, jury, and executioner) created by European comic-book auteurs, and there’s potential here for something that goes beyond the usual action-movie posturing and heroic brooding.
The movie lives up to much of that potential, in part because it doesn’t try to do too much. Nobody’s trying to take over the world here, or open up portals into other dimensions so giant worm thingies from beyond can enslave us all or some such. No, the deal is: In our wastelandian future, most of humanity lives in megablocks next to megahighways in megacities. Our no-nonsense, bemasked hero (Karl Urban) and a hot psychic rookie (Olivia Thirlby) are called in to one of these blocks, but are then trapped inside by the ruthless drug gang that rules it. Thus, they have to blast their way out, while also dispensing justice. (The plot actually bears more than a passing resemblance to one of this year’s best action films, the Indonesian cop epic The Raid: Redemption, but I’m assuming it’s just a coincidence, given the timing.)
The story framework may be modest, but nothing else in Dredd is. Dredd himself is a ruthless killing machine with little patience for hesitancy or moral complication. The chief villain, Ma-Ma (Lena Heady), a former hooker-turned-drug kingpin with a thing for “feminizing” men with her teeth, has a kind of dreamy, glass-eyed quality that suggests genuine evil. And the newfangled drug she’s pushing is a conceit both brazen and brilliant: The drug is called “slo-mo,” and when you take it your perception of time slows down to a fraction of its regular speed. So there’s actually a narrative purpose for the film’s slow-motion indulgences — whether it’s just aesthetic flourishes like undulating yellow curtains or sparkling sheets of bathwater, or far more gnarly things like exploding cheeks and stoned baddies freefalling to their deaths — ever … so … gently — down 200-story housing complexes.
There’s genuine beauty to Dredd — the grim reality of the world around these characters has prompted them to enliven their worlds with color, it seems — and Travis has an eye for visual patterns and for fluid movement. That said, the film isn’t particularly suspenseful: The outcome of any given fight scene is almost never in doubt, and it’s hard to feel too nervous about what might happen next when you can’t see the desperation on an actor’s face. (Urban is serviceable, but he can’t quite overcome the limitations of his costume with physicality the way Tom Hardy’s Bane could in The Dark Knight Rises.) Rather, Dredd 3-D places you firmly in an unreal, dreamlike world and rouses you with its unexpected grace and its rhythms and its movement. The plot ceases to matter after a certain point: This is a great big beautiful music video, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.