Let’s get one thing out the way. I’ve never read a 2000 AD comic in my life. My entire knowledge of Judge Dredd is limited to a VHS viewing of the 1995 Stallone film over a decade ago. So if you’re looking for an opinion that will tell you how faithful Dredd 3D is to the source material, or how it stacks up to the 1995 version, I’m not your guy. I am, however, an ardent fan of gritty action films that take advantage of their R-rating and don’t hold back. Dredd 3D takes place in a futuristic American wasteland. Dredd (Karl Urban) and a new rookie recruit with psychic abilities named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) head to Peach Trees; a towering city mega-block that serves as housing for a number poor residents, junkies, and a ruthless gang run by a vicious criminal who goes by the name Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). After taking a witness under their wing who knows Ma-Ma’s incriminating secrets, the gang locks down the building under a thick security wall that doesn’t let anybody in or out. With everyone trapped inside the building, Ma-Ma orders the death of the judges, bringing legions of gangsters and junkies down upon the pair.
If this plot sounds familiar, it is probably because you saw The Raid: Redemption. It is about the same, but given that both films just use the premise as an excuse to dish out intense, claustrophobic action, the plot similarities hardly matter. Where one was a showcasing of martial arts, the other is very much a blood splattered shoot’em up. The film has a cool look to it. The derelict building is mostly dark, but corridors are lit by neon lights. It is very similar to the look that the underrated, equally silly Punisher: War Zone had going for it. Urban is perfectly cast as Dredd. Without using anything but his mouth, he conveys that unforgiving scowl that befits the character perfectly.
The script is problematic. I don’t need great writing in an action film, but Dredd takes the self parody to cringe-inducing levels. I wanted so desperately to chuckle at the purposefully cheesy one-liners that followed certain kills, but the delivery just left me with a sigh. One thing the screenplay certainly lacks is character development. The Judge himself gets a pass. I understand that he is a single-minded, all grimace and growl character. I wouldn’t want him any other way. But the supporting characters could’ve benefited from more interesting arcs. Headey does a commendable job as Ma-Ma, but as a villain the character is so underdeveloped that I never felt like I was watching two big violent forces collide. Thirlby is also great as Anderson, but it feels like the writers weren’t sure what they wanted to do with the character. Early in the film, Anderson reacts to the violence around her in shock. When she is ordered by Dredd to commit her first execution, you can see a lot of doubt and uncertainty about the job in her facial expressions. The emotional rookie who has never had to kill before.. it’s an old, tired action movie trope that I could do without in my Dredd movie. Then later on Anderson gets an opportunity to make some brutal, gory kills of her own. When that happened, I thought my initial criticism had been subverted, and I was happy about it. But then she goes right back to being that uncertain rookie character.
That is how a lot of Dredd 3D felt to me. As soon as I began to think the screenplay might have something clever up its sleeve, it settles for being a standard action movie plot with cardboard characters. New threats are introduced to bring some variety to the proceedings, but each one just results in more of the same. This goes for the action sequences as well. Early on there is a very inventive action scene where some junkies take some SLO-MO right before Dredd blows down the door and takes them out. We get to watch the action under the effects of the drug. The colors become supersaturated in a very comic book manner. Shiny particles float through the air like beautiful snowflakes, and everything moves at an extremely slow pace. The music slows down too, and it sounds remarkably similar to the slowed down Justin Bieber song that became an internet sensation. Bullets create skin ripples as they pass through the armed junkies, spilling blood out like a shiny red salsa. It’s trippy and unique. It’s also the last time this technique is used in the movie.
Most of the action from that point on is your typical R-rated shoot’em up, with red CGI smears coming out of enemies before they topple over. There is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from Dredd’s varying types of ammo, each of which gets a moment to shine. There’s the hot shot, stun, incendiary and explosive rounds. I’m sure I’m even missing a couple of them. A couple of them are gloriously awesome, though nothing ever quite reaches the level of inventiveness as the SLO-MO scene that kicked things off. Some of the hand to hand combat is just clunky and poorly edited together, but there’s very little of it. I’ve never been a fan of 3D technology in the cinema, but I do find that it works best for trashy movies that are going to use it in fun, creative ways. Like the first Piranha 3D movie or Jackass 3D. Dredd 3D makes good use of it with the extreme slow-motion and particle effects during the SLO-MO scenes. There are also some neat effects whenever Anderson uses her psychic abilities that give everything a very surreal feeling.
I like that Dredd 3D doesn’t have a political agenda. At least not one that I could discern from a single viewing. It makes no apologies for what it is; an ultra violent, stylish action movie. It delivers on the one thing fans will be expecting of it, but I couldn’t help but see the potential for so much more. With a smarter script that made better use of a great cast and some more developed action set pieces, it could’ve been an unforgettable experience. As it stands, it’s just another summer action film with a some inventive ideas; as single-minded in its goals as the titular character.
Dredd 3D hits US theaters on September 21st.
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