"Dredd 3D" may present a dreary vision of the future, but it offers a promising encapsulation of the modern action movie. At the same time, director Pete Travis' treatment of the no-nonsense comic book character initially brought to life by Sylvester Stallone in the disposable 1995 adaptation relies on vapid storytelling that's overwhelmingly devoid of imagination. Still, enthusiasts of the genre — still reeling from another summer of men in tights — should see this comparatively small-scale effort for the sheer volume of contemporary action movie tropes crammed into one concise, frenetic experience.
Establishing a premise with the typical convenience of an opening voiceover, "Dredd 3D" delves into a dystopian world where masked judges patrol the crime-riddled streets and dispense justice with the power of jury and executioner behind their every move. While tailing reigning drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a scar-faced thug prone to violent assaults on her competition, the all-business Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, his face constantly obscured by a gray visor, in a gruff performance one step removed from Robocop) tracks her to a hulking slum and winds up trapped there with rookie agent Anderson (an equally mechanical Olivia Thirlby). With the building on lockdown and gun-toting goons lurking around each corner, the two judges work their way toward Mama's private lair while enduring a series of cacophonous showdowns.
Paving the way for the tools that fuel each fast-paced twist, make-believe ingredients abound: The bad guys thrive on an imaginary drug called Slo-mo that slows down the temporal experience of its user to 1%; bullets fly at impossible rates and robotic guns respond to voice commands; Anderson possesses a psychic ability that allows her to run through the minds of her opponents and extract their intel through a slickly presented method of mental abuse.
Regardless of these aspects, "Dredd 3D" draws much of its effectiveness from the physical constraints of its setting. Almost exclusively taking place in a single building, the movie unfolds in a series of enclosed spaces. Dredd and Anderson creep down one anonymous corridor after another while the increasingly anxious Ma-Ma watches their progress on a monitor from above.
The scenario is virtually identical to the high concept behind the terrific 2011 Indonesian action vehicle "The Raid: Redemption," which follows a wildly aggressive SWAT team making its way through a deeply fortified Jakarta slum. The limitations take the emphasis off sleek camera work and gratuitous CGI in favor of the claustrophobia of physical engagement, a return to the rough edges of a genre with roots in martial arts cinema. The more restricted the action the better, and the 3D effects in this case help emphasize robust action sequences that are all about dimensionality.
While "Dredd" lacks the extensive fight choreography that endowed "The Raid" with such visceral energy, the new movie compensates with attitude and vision. Deeming the metropolis a "cursed city" that only his kind has the power to cure, Dredd is a cold figure of objective law with roots stretching back to John Wayne. Complementing its badass protagonist, "Dredd" features explosive visuals in spite of the dark atmosphere. Expressionistically bright slo-mo sequences bring the impact of the invented drug to vivid life with near-cartoonish imagery that makes the bullet-time sequences of "The Matrix" look downright tame. As rap master (and newly minted film director) Ice-T, in the audience for the "Dredd" premiere screening I recently attended, remarked to a friend in the lobby afterward, "them slow-ass bullets was crazy."
In terms of its sights and sounds, there's a lot that's crazy about "Dredd." Too bad the screenplay, which lacks wit or effusiveness to match the film's absurd proceedings, can't keep up. Neither Dredd nor his sidekick possess the meaty one-liners expected of the slim B-movie format sustaining them.
But there's something admirable about this blatantly silly bloodbath. Fans of the genre may even find a nobility to its rambunctious struggle. Fitfully uneven, "Dredd" is nevertheless an intriguing consolidation of action-movie excess — and even makes a solid case for its aesthetic appreciation. That's the one verdict it reaches not with bullets, but rather with the reverence for the spectacle they represent.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Lionsgate releases "Dredd 3D" on Friday. It may enjoy a solid opening weekend because of tame competition, but the gory ingredients and subpar brand recognition may hinder its long-term commercial potential.