Seventeen years after Sylvester Stallone brought iconic 2000 AD comic-book cop Judge Dredd to the big screen in a toothless adaptation, director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland make a bold attempt to take the taciturn lawman back to his brutal roots in Dredd 3D. With capable Karl Urban donning the intimidating helmet to striking effect, incredible visuals courtesy of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), and enough blood spray to have us instinctively wiping down our 3D glasses after each action scene, this brisk blast of sci-fi action couldn't be more different from its campy predecessor, though a decided lack of substance ultimately prevents Dredd 3D from achieving greatness.
In the future, much of North America has been poisoned by radiation. The sprawling urban jungle of Mega City One stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C., and in order to keep the growing criminal element in check, police enforcers called "judges" have been given the power of judge, jury, and executioner. Judge Dredd (Urban) is the most feared of them all, delivering death sentences with impunity as he fights to rid the streets of "Slo-mo," a powerful new drug that alters the users' perception of time. In the process of training psychic rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), Dredd receives a report of an incident in a sprawling criminal stronghold ruled by fearsome drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), and ventures in to investigate. Upon learning that one of her top men has been captured by Dredd shortly thereafter, an enraged Ma-Ma seizes control of her massive 200-story complex, launching an all-out war against the Judges as Dredd and Cassandra find themselves trapped in the belly of the beast.
With Garland behind the screenplay, and the action centered in a towering slum ruled by a ruthless drug lord, some might walk into Dredd 3D expecting a healthy dose of action mixed with Verhoeven-style social satire. Instead, Travis and Garland focus their energies on delivering nonstop violence with a stunning visual style. With Mantle manning the camera, they achieve that goal quite admirably. Cinematically, Dredd 3D is nothing short of breathtaking. Impressive set design effectively immerses us in a crumbling urban jungle, Mantle's depiction of Slo-mo's effects are a sight to behold, and Garland's means of working those sequences into the story ensure that the (admittedly threadbare) plot doesn't simply get lost in the pretty pictures. Unfortunately, the Slo-mo scenes often stifle the action more than enhance it, and despite the fact that Garland has some mind-bending fun with Cassandra's psychic abilities, anyone seeking the smart genre nuance the screenwriter brought to 28 Days Later and Sunshine will be sadly disappointed by the one-dimensional characters, witless one-liners, and simplistic fight-their-way-to-the-top plot on display here.
But there's something to be said for selling it, and there's little denying that the cast of Dredd 3D give it their all. His helmet held purposefully in place throughout the course of the film, Urban makes for a truly intimidating Judge Dredd -- yet he throws in the occasional flash of humor and humanity to help us remember that the character is indeed flesh and blood. As his unqualified but indispensable partner, Thirlby plays a pitch-perfect rookie, her skills often coming into play at the most crucial times. Headey, meanwhile, embraces her scarred villainess' unfathomable cruelty with no reservations, providing Dredd with an appropriately vile antagonist in order to rally the viewers to his cause. Yet despite all of this, even committed performances can't make up for one simple and undeniable truth: Dredd 3D is, at its core, a bloody spectacle and little more. And while that may be enough to satisfy forgiving comic fans, it will likely leave the rest of us singing the Slo-mo blues as the bullets whiz by our heads.