Grim, gritty and ultra-violent, “Dredd” reinstates the somber brutality missing from the U.K. comicbook icon’s previous screen outing, the disappointing 1995 Sylvester Stallone starrer “Judge Dredd.” A reboot as drastic as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” this hard-R, sci-fi actioner from director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland should find an appreciative audience among serious-minded fanboys and gorehounds, while the pic’s more extreme elements will likely limit its potential of crossing over to the superhero mainstream when Lionsgate releases it domestically Sept. 21.
At a time when most comicbook adaptations try to be all things to all people, “Dredd” makes the radical choice of playing to the base. Dredd-heads disappointed by the creative liberties and concessions to conventionality made by the Stallone version will find little reason to quibble with the determined and unapologetic approach to the one-man judge, jury and executioner here. There’s no comic-relief sidekick, no love interest, no movie-star pandering. In a direct nod to the source, this Dredd never even removes his face-obscuring helmet, remaining a stoic and mysterious figure throughout.
The action unfolds on a futuristic Earth ravaged by wars and divided into overcrowded urban centers known as Mega-Cities, patrolled by Judges, members of an all-powerful police force equipped with the latest technology and bestowed with the responsibility of rendering life-or-death verdicts at the scene of a crime. The irreproachable Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), who safeguards Mega-City One, is asked to evaluate rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), an Academy underachiever who nevertheless possesses extraordinary psychic abilities: She can read minds, a rather invaluable trick for solving crimes.
When Dredd and Cassandra respond to a triple-homicide call in a high-rise, they find themselves battling ruthless drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute who now rules with an iron fist over the 200-story vertical slum. Ma-Ma has evaded capture while supplying Mega-City One with a potent narcotic called Slo-Mo, which allows users to experience reality at a fraction of its normal speed — but she’s never faced Judge Dredd.
The film’s unforgiving version of Dredd is something of a cross between Christian Bale’s Batman and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He’s a badass of few words and a gravelly voice. While Urban isn’t permitted to reveal much humanity behind the man (we never even get a peek at Dredd’s eyes beneath his uniform helmet, let alone his soul), he does a fine job embodying the more mythic qualities of Dredd as an upright law enforcer no lowlife would want to confront.
That leaves Thirlby to shoulder the film’s emotional core, and the physically unassuming actress proves up to the challenge of a meaty role. Cassandra is as committed to taking down criminals as Dredd, but she also harbors a deep reserve of empathy that stems from being able to see into other people’s minds. One of the film’s true thrills comes in watching Thirlby effortlessly balance the conflict between a Judge’s merciless duties and a psychic’s compassionate understanding.
Of course, “Dredd” also serves up thrills far less nuanced than its heroine’s inner struggles. Relentless carnage bombards the viewer from all sides, even more so in impressively utilized 3D. Heads are smashed, bullets rip through body parts and one larynx is memorably destroyed, accompanied by the throbbing sounds of Paul Leonard-Morgan’s bass-heavy original score. Even though both the heroes and the villains prove equally barbarous, there’s never any question as to who’s good or bad in this black-and-white world. It’s only through Cassandra’s emotional arc that the audience sees any cracks in the totalitarian justice system.
As suggested by the wild shift in quality between his breakout docudrama “Omagh” and underwhelming follow-up “Vantage Point,” director Travis is only as strong as his source material. He gets a sturdy B-movie foundation here from Garland, who sets the tone by taking comicbook characters and situations seriously.
This earnest approach is evident in tech credits as well, most notably Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, which eschews the jittery handheld imagery of Travis’ earlier films for more careful compositions. The judiciously spread-out “Slo-Mo” sequences are especially eye-catching.
Editor Mark Eckersley gets a workout in a trippy sequence in which Cassandra enters the mind of a remorseless prisoner (Wood Harris), and production designer Mark Digby relishes the details of establishing a functioning city (including a medical center, eateries and even a movie theater) within a massive high-rise.