A straight-forward dystopian police actioneer with violent tendencies (but without Sylvester Stallone).
In the ruins of a nuclear war, the East Coast of North America has been walled off from the irradiated wastelands. Dubbed Mega-City One, the bulk of the 800 million population is unemployed, housed in skyscraper-like city blocks boasting fifty thousand citizens apiece. To combat rampant crime, street judges are dispatched as police with the authority of a judge, jury, and executioner. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is one of Mega-City One’s star cops, tasked with taking a borderline rookie judge-in-training named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) through her street assessment. While answering a routine call in the Peach Trees city block, local gang boss Ma-Ma (Lena Headley) seals them inside her building to hunt them down, but what secret does the block hold to risk publicly assassinating two street judges?
Featured in the 1977 second issue of British science fiction anthology “2000 AD,” the character of Judge Dredd barely has any foothold with American readers. The 1995 $90 million Judge Dredd movie (featuring Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, and Diane Lane) didn’t exactly enchant American audiences either, bombing in the US while doing three times the business in the UK (but not enough to justify a sequel). Twenty-some years later, Karl Urban takes up the mantle of the faceless street judge with less four-color comic book trappings and more cops in the urban jungle, but for fans hurt by Stallone’s version and a shrinking American fan base, what chance does this new Judge Dredd have, even in 3D? In two words, it’s good.
Without the sc-fi dystopia elements, it’s the story of a veteran cop and a rookie stumbling into more than they should be able to handle. While the story works well on that level, layering the genre elements on top of this framework provides a fantastic setting while still giving Dredd fans what they expect (for example, Urban’s Dredd never removes his helmet, a detail from the comic that was ignored by the Stallone film). It may not be perfect, but it’s far more palatable than Dredd’s first cinematic outing, especially tweaked up with the violence and horror-level bloodletting rather than the sanitized cartoon version that looked more like Dick Tracy when it would have been better served echoing Blade Runner. In a steel and concrete world where nothing is green and the future is bleak, Dredd “is the law,” and this new film gets the balance right even if the 3D enhancements don’t.
Karl Urban isn’t exactly a newcomer, but he’s proven himself as a versatile actor. Luck has been against him starring in big films that fall short at the box office, such as The Chronicles of Riddick, Doom, and Priest while finding fans as “Bones” McCoy in the Star Trek reboot and Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lena Headley nearly disappears into her scarred and addicted turn of villainy, while Olivia Thirlby is convincing as a rookie getting a crash course in kill-or-be-killed. As of this writing, it looks like Dredd 3D will bomb in the US once again (and far worse than Stallone’s version), so it remains to be seen what will happen if it’s presented overseas and given the chance to play in other territories. It’s a solid action flick regardless in spite of American audiences passing on it this time around, but it may find new life (and the audience it deserves) on-demand or at home if it fails to entertain the rest of the world.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)