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“800 million people living in the ruin of the old world, only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: The men and women of the Hall of Justice.”
A great number of directors have emerged due to their work within the genre of science fiction. George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Robert Zemeckis are just a handful of directors that have shown us how their minds view the future. This list of talented craftsmen now welcome Pete Travis who’s sophomore effort, Dredd 3D, though far less metaphorically pensive or genre bending than some sci-fi classics, is a down n’ dirty actioner that’s deliciously violent and dressed to its neck in grit. It’s a bombastic and satirical film that manages to faithfully depict its graphic novel source cinematically. With an appropriately stark tone, some wicked dark humor, and a surely star-making performance from Karl Urban, Dredd 3D is the best kind of summer blockbuster: One that’s loaded with surprises, and does not come out in the summer.
The cited quote atop the article prefaces important details: In a bleak future, the occupations of judge, jury, and executioner have been simplified into a singular law enforcement position known simply as ‘Judge.’ Based on a Judge’s own discretion, they can provide one of two very unfavorable judgments to a perpetrator: Lifetime imprisonment without parole, or death. When facing Judge Dredd, the most infamous and feared judge within Mega City One (an expansive city that now runs continuously from Washington D.C. to Boston), you’d be right to expect the latter. After servicing some petty burnouts in the film’s opening, Dredd is asked to oversee the training day of Cassandra Anderson, an orphan who just missed passing the Judge’s exam but is being considered because of her genetic mutation which gives her psychic abilities. Disgruntled and annoyed, Dredd sets out with Anderson at his side and, per her decision, they investigate a triple homicide at the tenement housing known as Peach Trees. Within the development resides Ma-Ma, a drug dealing mob boss who locks the Judges within the 200-story structure and instructs the violent thugs of Peach Trees to take down the Judges at whatever cost. While enforcing the law was tough to begin with, our protagonists must now manage to stay alive before any justice can be served.
If you don’t know who Karl Urban is, prepare to meet one of the year’s breakout stars. A veteran actor from New Zealand, Urban has starred in The Bourne Supremacy, Red, Star Trek, and the second two Lord of the Rings films, but Dredd 3D marks his first leading role. The talented performer brings along an undeniably powerful presence as the almighty Judge; his wide build, menacing growl, and raspy voice construct a futuristic Dirty Harry. Unlike Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Judge Dredd in the atrocious 1995 film adaptation, Urban never reveals more than the lower half of his face to the audience as a result of wearing Dredd’s iconic helmet. Similar to Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, Urban is limited to his voice and his physicality and, as Hardy did with Bane, Urban immortalizes Dredd on screen. It’s a role that he will hopefully have the opportunity to reprise.
Through a humanistic performance, supporting actress Olivia Thirlby (Juno) is a fine contrast to Dredd, proving that Judge Anderson’s morals and ethics are not entirely corrupted by the decaying society. She allows for Dredd to develop a paradigm shift in his perspective, straying away from the ‘right or wrong’ mentality he possesses. Game of Thrones’ Lena Heady is given little depth as Ma-Ma but she dons enough makeup to let us know that she is not the one to be rooting for in this story. While Dredd may seem little better than Ma-Ma, in a future like this, he is definitely the lesser of two evils.
In my roundtable interview with Karl Urban, he stated, “I think this movie is a throwback in some ways, and in some ways it’s cutting edge because this movie kind of dares to do what a lot of films shouldn’t do and that is that it actually physically takes you out of the picture. Movies aren’t supposed to do that, but it works in this movie.” Pete Travis presents the effects of the drug ‘Slo-Mo’ (Ma-Ma’s key export that makes time feel as if it is moving at 1 percent it’s normal rate) in a visual style that utilizes a higher frame rate to mimic the molasses-like passing of time and the results are gorgeous. Travis uses this technique sparingly, but its few appearances do yield balletic action sequences that nicely juxtapose the frenetic and pyrotechnic-heavy ones that appear throughout the film, reminiscent of early John Woo. Pete Travis definitely leaves a personalized mark on this high-tech, video game-esque, B-movie, and indicates an unmistakable growth since his disappointing debut feature, Vantage Point.
In an overpopulated genre (which will get more crowded next week with Looper), Dredd 3D, while not entirely original, is definitely fresh. Though Travis and Urban man this ship, it would be a mistake to not thank writer Alex Garland. He adapts the comic book character into the action hero he deserves to be while also incorporating a dry, laconic sense of humor and presenting a straightforward, though somewhat simple, storyline in a grand, perpetually present action set piece. What could have easily been another cinematic Judge Dredd misfire is actually a devilishly fun thrill ride that could potentially be the sleeper hit of the fall. And if I’m wrong, at least there’s solace in knowing that this has all the makings of an instant cult classic.
As for Karl Urban, he’s fine with either outcome.