Directed by Pete Travis
Written by Alex Garland
United Kingdom, 2012
For any filmmaker, extending as far back to the 1920s, there may be no potential future that isn’t steeped in grim imagery. Directors and writers like to expand on the way the world operates today, or concoct wild fantasy environments, but their visions always end as a dystopia of some sort. The new film Dredd 3D fits in adequately into the post-apocalyptic genre, despite using it more as a framing device, a set-up for the main event: lots and lots and lots of bloody, gruesome, in-your-face action.
Karl Urban (better known as Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek reboot) dons a helmet/mask that covers all but his sneering mouth and chin to play Judge Dredd, one of many Judges in the all-powerful Hall of Justice. Judges are the sole source of justice in this future, where everyone lives in a massive, polluted metropolis called Mega-City One, stretching from what was once Boston to Washington, DC. The tough-minded Dredd is tasked with assessing a potential new Judge, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, playing against type surprisingly well), on her first day. But after they respond to a multiple-homicide report in the 200-story Peach Trees high-rise, they find themselves under attack by gang members controlled by Ma-Ma, a feared drug lord whose penchant for violence knows no bounds.
Dredd 3D is intelligent enough, in that the film, written by Alex Garland, also the screenwriter of 28 Days Later, knows exactly what it wants to be. Once the setup is dispensed with, the rest of the film takes place entirely in the sprawling slums of Peach Trees, as Dredd and Anderson fend off everyone who steps in their way. Despite looming so large in the sky, Peach Trees feels mighty claustrophobic, thanks to the cramped brown-hued hallways and dingy apartments stacked on top of each other. Director Pete Travis does a strong and somewhat subtle job of slowly ramping up the tension, introducing one complication after another for Dredd and Anderson to defeat or perish against.
Garland’s script and Travis’ direction also help create an exceedingly gory affair. Dredd 3D is never shy to remind you of why it’s rated R. The most striking example comes early, when Dredd and Anderson have a showdown with some gangland junkies high on Ma-Ma’s potent new drug, Slo-Mo, which causes the user’s brain to treat time as if it’s moving incredibly slow. When the guns come out and begin blazing (and this happens almost instantly), we see bullets rip through stomachs, faces, and heads in calculated, near-satiric and balletic slow motion. The squeamish need not buy tickets.
Urban has a difficult challenge to clear; Dredd literally wears his helmet/mask at all times. (Well, OK, in the first minute, we see the man from behind without anything on his head, but just for a split second.) As such, all Urban has to work with is terse, blunt dialogue, as well as his surprisingly expressive lips. Dredd is a fairly rigid individual, but through his mouth, you can read, above all else, contempt for any form of crime and most of the people he encounters. Thirlby, not a veteran of the action genre, acquits herself nicely as a rookie who’s on the knife’s edge of being kicked out even though she has useful and convenient psychic powers. And fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones and The Wire will get a kick out of the two main villains, Ma-Ma and her henchman Kay, played by Lena Headey and Wood Harris. Headey hasn’t ever been more ruthlessly evil (Ma-Ma would shove Cersei Lannister in the mud before she said a word), and Harris ends up having a good, tense chemistry with Thirlby and Urban.
Dredd 3D is the rare film that, as you may imagine from the title, was actually shot in 3D (the film’s cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, has an extremely eclectic filmography; only a few years ago, he won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire). The 3D is most impressive, or at least most essential, during the various Slo-Mo scenes. Travis and Mantle show us inside the mind of the Slo-Mo user; colors are brighter, sensations are stronger, and yes, time slows to a crawl. While these sequences are arresting in their use of 3D technology, they’re few and far between; the last half of the film barely has any obvious use of the format. Still, it’s better than a post-conversion of 2D footage.
Dredd 3D is a propulsive, visceral, and unrelenting action film; it feels almost unfair to dub this as science fiction, simply because the setting is a sideshow to the bloodsports on display. As an entry in the dystopian-era genre of filmmaking, Dredd 3D may not be able to stand toe to toe with classics like Brazil or 12 Monkeys; however, it’d probably go down fighting. As a straightforward, Robocop-esque actioner, though, Dredd 3D hits the mark, and hits it often.
– Josh Spiegel