Dredd 3D skulked into the cinemas this week unannounced. I went in with no expectations, save for the earlier movie starring Stallone which was, shall we say, not too dreadful.
In this incarnation, Megacity One is brooding, colourless, and filthy like it's supposed to be. There's a lot of blue, grey tints and dark shadows, like the colour scheme of CSI:NY. Nasty place, don't wanna stay there and not even visit. Dredd's voice-over in the prologue tells us that the boundaries of MC1 stretch from DC to Boston. Reading the comic-book, I never knew the cityscape was that immense.
Karl Urban plays Dredd, all gravelly-voiced and serious. He is the embodiment of Justice: efficient, unflinching and blind. Next to him is Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) -- Justice with compassion and conscience. Their wardrobe reflects their characters. Dredd never removes his helmet, eyes permanently obscured by the tinted visor, while Anderson wears no helmet at all, all blonde and wide-eyed, first day on the job. It is Dredd's task to evaluate Anderson's performance and decide if she has what it takes to wear the badge.
Anderson's choice to investigate a gruesome triple homicide at the Peach Trees -- a huge residential tower complex -- pits the two Judges against the violent and resourceful Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her gang. To keep the secret of the Peach Trees, Ma-Ma orders the lock-down of the entire building and issues an off-with-their-heads order against the Judges. The game from there is to survive the building, keep their suspect alive and find their way back to the Hall of Justice.
What more plot need there be? Dredd stories are all about dispensing justice with extreme prejudice and that's exactly what happens. In glorious slo-mo (there's even a reason why things happen in slo-mo and it ties into one of my favourite and most disturbing Dredd stories I've ever read), with blood spatter a la "300".
In every fight, the Judges appear to have the upper hand. I hate it when it seems like the protagonist looks like he's playing on God-mode (like in "Ghost Rider"). But to their credit, there's clearly flesh-and-blood underneath the armour so the danger for them is real. It's just too bad that the Ma-Ma Clan are such terrible shots.
The movie mostly plays out like a third-person shooter in which the Judges outsmart or outgun the grunts and face the occasional boss battle. Locked in the tower the only way to go is up, to confront Ma-Ma herself. It would be predictable to shoot it out with ultimate boss lady, but instead her threat involves a Hobson's choice, requiring Dredd to think out-of-the-box for a solution and deliver appropriate justice at the same time.
This movie incarnation of Dredd contains the two elements I like about the character: violence and irony. The storyline isn't too complex (survive, protect the innocents, live with your own judgements), but that means that the narrative is tight and focused leaving no room for self-indulgence. The essence of Dredd.