Did we ever really need another Judge Dredd movie? Before now, I would have considered that a very valid question. The difference here, is that we have a gritty, R-rated sci-fi movie that exists thanks to independent financing and the resourcefulness of filmmakers who seem to truly understand the power of the source material. If ever there was a movie to root for, this would be it. Does Dredd 3D deliver the goods, or are we praying to a false idol?
I enjoy being pleasantly surprised by a movie. Particularly if it’s a film that I hope will be good from a premise and casting standpoint but has sufficiently underwhelmed on the marketing front. Dredd 3D was one such film, a movie that oozed style but appeared to have very little in the way of substance. In fact, it’s a tightly paced, fun, violent romp through a grim future earth that lives up to the comic book property that spawned both its title and its titular hero. In a showdown between this film and Sylvester Stallone’s painfully bad Judge Dredd from the 90s, there really is no comparison. Karl Urban is Dredd… and everything else is just the audience holding on for dear life.
A lot of reviews have labored to compare the film to the Thai actioner The Raid: Redemption. Saying a movie is like another movie, but much more sci-fi and futuristic, is akin to saying a war movie with a romance is like a romantic comedy with more bullets. Do both films involve a building of multiple stories with bad guys on each level that have to be dealt with in some way to continue the mission? Yes. Is that basically where all the comparisons end? Yes. Dredd does an incredibly large amount of setup in a very limited time, and is commendable in its dexterity. Introducing Olivia Thirlby as a rookie with a unique skillset early on allows a lot of exposition to be delivered quite naturally, a conceit that has been used countless times before but somehow never gets old. It probably helps that she’s cute, and that we care what happens to her pretty immediately. If there’s one thing Judge Dredd never is, it’s an underdog, so having someone else we can root for lets Dredd be his usually gruff and intimidating self. Considering we never see his face, Karl Urban manages to emote a surprisingly large amount with his mouth alone, and his body language sells you on his authority and his skill to a degree that you never question what he’s capable of. There’s a great sense of momentum throughout the movie, and Urban does a good job of keeping the one-liners coming without them feeling forced.
Meanwhile, the flip side of the coin is Lena Headey, a truly disturbing villain and a great demonstration of the power of a female antagonist. She owns the complex, and her gang keeps order for her. She’s a woman in control who knows how to keep it, and you get the sense that she’s ready to die if necessary to protect what’s hers, or kill hundreds of innocent people to prove her point. Her gang controls a new narcotic that has recently hit the streets, a drug junkies are referring to as “slo-mo”, and the film does a good job of demonstrating exactly why someone would become addicted to the substance. Narratively, the drug is described as tricking the brain into thinking that time is running at 1% its normal speed. This leads to a lot of beautiful slow-motion photography, and it’s where the native 3D really shines. Sparkling glass, rippling water, bullets traveling through bodies and spraying geysers of blood, all delivered in an oversaturated blaze of time dilated glory, serve as the visual highlights of the film. Trust me, you’ve never seen a firefight quite like this. I’d recommend the 3D for those sequences alone, and the rest of the movie isn’t too shabby either.
In the long run, this isn’t a film that’s going to win any awards. The fact that an independently financed comic book adaptation can be this much fun on a tiny budget is a testament to what’s possible with visual effects today, as well as the commitment of the filmmakers to crafting a truly entertaining ride. It’s nothing if not fun, and for action movie fans, there’s a ton about this one that will have you grinning from ear to ear. Will it stick with you after the credits roll? Probably not. But you’ll sure enjoy everything that happens up to that point. I’d give it a hearty recommendation, even if it’s to pass some time at a matinee, but of all the crap that’s out there right now, you could do an awful lot worse.
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