I think the official title of this film is actually DREDD 3D, which must be a bit annoying for anyone watching the 2-D version. The plot is simple enough. After a brief introduction of how the Judges are the only thing holding shit together in the dystopian future city of Mega City One, we see Judge Dredd bust some clueless perps, in a scene set up basically to establish how bad-ass he is. Then he is assigned a rookie Judge to take out on her first day of real judging - she is on probation, so if she fucks up she is out on her ear (assuming she is still alive after fucking up - Dredd helpfully informs the rookie that 30% (or something) of cadets do not survive their first day on the streets). Dredd is a bit annoyed to be dealing with the cadet, as she marginally failed her exams in the academy, but is being given a break by the more senior Judges on account of her amazing psychic powers - for this is a young Judge Anderson.
Dredd and Anderson respond to a routine call from a city block. A couple of guys have been skinned alive and then dropped a few hundred storeys down the interior atrium, no big deal. But in investigating they stumble onto something a bit bigger and soon find themselves trapped in the block while the sinister crime lady who runs it orders her numerous mook underlings to kill the intruders. At this point things start to resemble the popular British-Indonesian film The Raid, albeit with less martial arts.
So it goes. With films about things that have been a big part of your life, there is always the fear that they will somehow fuck it up. To reassure readers I can reveal the following:
1. Dredd does not take off his helmet.
2. There is no burgeoning romance between Dredd and Anderson.
3. Anderson is not presented as a sexy lady Judge but as a Judge who is a woman, if you see what I mean (the film does better than the comics in this respect).
4. Nor is Anderson a damsel-in-distress who keeps having to be rescued.
5. Dredd does not have a woman sidekick just so the film can climax with him fighting a male villain and Anderson cat-fighting a lady villain.
There are nevertheless some interesting points of difference with the comics (or with the comics as they were when I was reading them more than 20 years ago). For one thing, Dredd is more of a badass and the Judges seem a bit more straightforwardly terrifying. The Judges seem to have the power to administer capital punishment, whereas in my day life in the iso-cubes was the maximum penalty for any crime. Unlike in the comics, beating information out of suspects seems not to be a problem for cinematic Dredd.
The bizarre humour of the comics seemed a bit toned down as well. I remember how Mega City One was always presented as a pretty unpleasant place, but it was also a strange unpleasant place and not just somewhere that looked like an overgrown American inner city. In the comics you had things like Boing®, Otto Sump and the Uglies, Karl Heinz-Pilchards-In-Tomato-Soup-Clayderman, Walter the Wobot, and a general sense that while dystopian Mega City One was also a weird and oddly exciting place to be. There was not so much of that in the film, though I suppose Dredd's continuous reporting of bodies available for recycling was a bit like that. As is the beggar with the sign saying "Will debase self for credits". Or the shopping mall in which a loudspeaker announces that everything will be reopening in fifteen minutes (this after a perp has received some particularly extreme justice).
It occurs to me, though, that in some respects this is mirroring the way the stories developed in 2000 AD. In his first published appearance, there is also not so much of the strangeness, with the story instead being more of the tough-future-cop variety. That also features Dredd fighting his way up through a building controlled by criminals. So maybe just as the comics let things get strange over time, perhaps the filmmakers are planning to weird us out with the sequels. Or else they were avoiding one mistake of the 1990s Judge Dredd film, where almost too much elements from the comics were thrown into the mix (and then done wrong).
The pairing of Karl Urban as Dredd and Olivia Thirlby as Anderson works well. Urban is a great presence throughout a film in which we only see his chin. He just keeps going and there is no bullshit scene in which he suddenly shows a soft side and reveals that he only got into law enforcement because he was bullied at school. Anderson is played as a more human and humane character, someone who is a bit more ambivalent about the whole judging enterprise. Because she is able to see into people's minds and stuff, we get a variant of the Dr Evil grunt / "Best Man Fall" Invisibles episode, after she meets the next of kin of someone she has killed; maybe that kind of thing has become a bit of a cliché (has it?), but it does still pack a punch.
The bad guys are quite impressive too. Lena Headley is pretty terrifying as Ma-Ma, the spiritually dead criminal who runs the city block. She plays the character more like Tilda Swinton in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe than a scenery-chewing cackler. Wood Harris, as one of Ma-Ma's underlings who is captured early on by the Judges, has an air of creepy malevolence, particularly in the scenes where he is able to gross out Anderson by letting her read his thoughts. Real top marks must however go to Domhnall Gleeson as a confused hippy computer expert who works for Ma-Ma but is permanently in danger of being flayed by her.
Overall I would recommend this film to anyone with a fondness for the comics. Or to people generally who like well-made action films. Or to anyone who does not want to spend the rest of their life in an iso-cube. And music fans will be interested to hear that the soundtrack features a tune by Matt Berry.
An inuit panda production