More action movies should be like Dredd 3D. In fact, most movies could take a hint or two from Dredd 3D. Pete Travis’ adaptation of the cult comic (already poorly handled once in the ’90s with Stallone and Rob Schneider) is a pretty unassuming film that comes at the tail end of a lackluster series of summer blockbusters. Yet it stands apart from all the bloated franchises by offering exactly what they didn’t: lean, muscular action that cuts out all the bullshit inherent in the genre.
Dredd 3D has no love interest, no origin story, very few pithy one-liners, no sass-tacular henchmen, no last-second fake-outs or deus ex machina… just a ripping yarn in the mold of a Walter Hill or even John Carpenter film. It’s certainly not a think piece, but who wants that in their action movie?
In the future, America is one giant urban wasteland ridden with crime and poverty, overseen by Judges, police officers who also sentence and execute suspects as they see fit. Dredd (played by part of Karl Urban’s face and most of his body) is tasked to train a new recruit (Olivia Thirlby) whose policing skills are ruled to be average but who has the advantage of being psychic. A routine homicide investigation leads them directly into the middle of a 200-story block governed by crime kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who places the building under lockdown to prevent the Judges from putting one of her goons (Wood Harris) into custody, thereby spilling the beans on her drug trafficking empire.
It’s not exactly Pynchon (or even Philip K. Dick), but that’s precisely what makes Dredd 3D such a breath of fresh air: it fully commits to its roots as grimy, primal pulp. Leave the operatic superhero melodramas to Christopher Nolan and the balletic violence to The Raid: Redemption; this is bloody, clunky comic-book violence in shades of concrete grey and crimson.
Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland consistently make interesting and unpredictable choices, from depicting Ma-Ma as a soft-spoken ruler rather than an over-the-top psychopath to the trippy drug sequences that pepper the film (the drug that Ma-Ma peddles slows down time; this makes actual good use of 3D effects, another miracle perpetrated by this film). Dredd 3D manages to be the rare mainstream blockbuster that doesn’t look and feel like every other thing at the multiplex. It might be disposable, but it does a hell of a better job of it than most. ■
Dredd 3D opens Sept. 21