A cult anti-hero born 35 years ago on the pages of the long-running British comic book 2000 AD, Judge Dredd began life as a kind of futuristic Dirty Harry, an ultraviolent fantasy of a US lawman policing a dystopian Blade Runner universe. His fascistic worldview, dispensing hard-edged instant justice on the mean streets of Mega City One, offered readers both a guilty pleasure and a darkly satirical commentary on Anglo-American society in the late 1970s, just as punk rock was fading and the Thatcher-Reagan era was dawning.
In Dredd 3D, this evergreen pop-culture icon gets rebooted for the 21st century by Alex Garland, author of The Beach and screenwriter of 28 Days Later, among many others. A previous attempt to bring Dredd to the screen, director Danny Cannon’s 1995 star vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, impressed neither serious fans nor mainstream movie-goers. But Garland and director Pete Travis deliver a sharper and better film, more faithful to the original comic, but careful not to be too culturally specific, and targeted squarely at the huge global market for sci-fi thrillers. While its R rating will inevitably limit commercial potential, this is a superior genre piece which ticks enough effects-heavy action-franchise boxes to generate healthy box office.
Where Cannon’s film was geographically expansive, clumsily comic and heavily sanitised for family viewing, Dredd 3D takes exactly the opposite approach. The violence here is graphic and gory, taking full advantage of that R rating. The dark, ironic, very British humour of the original strip has been largely excised. And nine-tenths of the story takes place inside a single location, a vast housing project which has become a lawless high-rise ghetto controlled by the ruthlessly sadistic drugs pusher and crime boss Ma-Ma (Headey). When Dredd (Urban) and his rookie partner, the psychic Judge Anderson (Thirlby), arrive to investigate a triple homicide, they become prisoners of this violent mega-slum, fighting for survival against Ma-Ma’s heavily armed foot soldiers.
The limited location, computer game-style plot and muted humour of Dredd 3D may disappoint hardcore fans of the comic book. While the vast post-apocalyptic sprawl of Mega City One almost functioned like a main character in the original strips, here we only see it in teasing glimpses, as a chaotic concrete jungle stretching off to the far horizon. Most of the film was shot in South Africa, which perhaps explains why this ostensibly US Eastern seaboard cityscape looks more like Johannesburg than Boston or Manhattan.
Dredd purists will perhaps approve more of Karl Urban’s minimalist portrayal, barking terse commands from behind his ever-present mask, in-keeping with his comic-strip blueprint. But it still lacks something, a one-dimensional performance in a three-dimensional film. The Die Hard-level plot also contains a few risibly silly contrivances, notably the photogenic Anderson being sent into an urban war zone despite forgetting to wear her protective helmet. Doh!
That said, Dredd 3D constantly impresses on a visual level, with a gritty style more akin to cult hits like District 9 or 28 Days Later than to standard Hollywood comic-book blockbusters. The esteemed British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, best known for his Lars Von Trier collaborations and his Oscar-winning work on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, adds to the project’s overall air of high-level craftsmanship. His first venture into 3D is a blaze of saturated colours, gorgeous high-resolution close-ups and dazzling slow-motion sequences. Imagine the balletic slowed-down carnage of vintage Sam Peckinpah or John Woo, but taken to the next technological level.
Pitched at the right level to please original fans, but still slick and accessible enough to attract new ones, Dredd 3D feels like a smart and muscular addition to the sci-fi action genre. Even 35 years later, Judge Dredd still packs a hard punch. Go ahead, punk. Make his day.
Venue: London press screening, July 25
Production companies: DNA Films, Lionsgate, Reliance Entertainment, IM Global
Cast: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris
Director: Pete Travis
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Alex Garland, Jason Kingsley, Chris Kingsley
Writer: Alex Garland
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Sales company: Lionsgate
Rated R, 95 minutes