“Dredd 3D” sells its violence like a new Apple product, proudly flaunting it bells, whistles and three-ton Gatling guns. In the first five minutes, our hero melts a junkie’s head. It’s that sort of movie.
It’s also something more. Behind the dystopian trappings and the “Robocop” setup of desolate urban landscapes presided over by drug lords and chilly vigilantes, something interesting is happening. Intelligence brews; wit hides. How could something so bloody, curt and mean inspire deep thought?
Adapted from a popular storyline in the British comic anthology “2000 AD,” “Dredd” takes us to a future where America has been reduced to a nuclear-ravaged wasteland. The vestiges of humanity resides in Mega-City One, a fortified city-state with a population of 800 million, packed with winding interstate and skyscrapers functioning as towns. An ordinary police force is insufficient for such a crime trap. Thus we have the Judges.
Police, judge and executioner all in one, these faceless human-automatons prowl the city, checking satellite feeds for the most urgent crimes. Dredd (Karl Urban) is among the troop’s “best” members. He’s still alive, an accomplishment by itself, and has no pretension about the odds: Judges deal with 6 percent of all crimes; one in five die their first day. Power belongs to the carnal, not the law.
Dredd — as portrayed by Stallone in the last film based on the character — was a benevolent defender of justice. His familiar jowls and drawl reassured us he only meant good. The new Dredd hides behind an impenetrable helmet: we never see his eyes, only thick, snarling lips. He says little, plays by the rules and shows no mercy — even when his duty pits him against sadist slumlord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) on her turf: a 200-story tower packed with thugs and innocent bystanders. Both groups’ blood intermingles in the 90-minute massacre that comprises the film.
Make no mistake: “Dredd” is among the bloodiest R-movies given mainstream release. Ma-Ma’s preferred method of execution is skinning people, force-feeding them a drug that slows their perception of time and hurling them to a protracted, agonizing death from 2,000 feet. At times we share this sloth vision, watching a man’s belly ripple as bullets plunge through it, or a kid’s cheek blown open, revealing blood-splattered gold teeth. The camera lingers on and dances around the gore, capturing it in bright hues while the slow motion elevates it to ballet. A celebration of violence? It’s certainly never been more beautiful.
The film succeeds because it shows how easily cruelty can infiltrate “pretty pictures.” “Dredd” is that rare breed of satire that understands its target so well it delivers a perfect imitation: the terse one-liners bookending scenes of explosions, smashed heads and threatened rape — a glossy texture ripped straight from the comic panel à la “Sin City.” In many cases, “Dredd” is indistinguishable from the tasteless cinema it copies. It offends with the same relentless glee.
But devilish genius peeks through in hints and winks. Dredd’s male boorishness finds contrast in Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a new judge who joins his siege on Peach Tree. She’s a “mutant” graced with psychic powers. If Dredd repels empathy with his tinted visor, Anderson welcomes it. She discovers the humanity in their attackers, sees their fears and weaknesses. As the one hero with a fully visible face, Anderson proves more endearing than Dredd. She learns quickly that unbending authority benefits nobody.
“Dredd”’s strong female presence, a rarity for an action flick, undermines the film’s masculine bent and exposes many other prejudices in the genre: its impotence, posturing, reflexive rage and petty cynicism. That the feature film remains compelling despite chewing out its own flaws reflects kindly on the lead performances and the work by director Pete Travis, who understands comic language and how to translate it to film. Like Matthew Vaughn with “Kick-Ass,” he doesn’t just deconstruct superhero stories but inhabits them, bringing their most distinctive features to the forefront.
I found “Dredd” a deceptively smart, always fun ride. It’s hilarious without forcing much effort, exciting in its unironic subversions and it masters the balance act of critiquing itself while still delivering genuine thrills. Seeing a face shatter against the screen, and coat it in a veil of glowing blood is a striking statement about the dissolution of identity behind a blind, violent spectacle. It’s also a real pretty tableau — I guess you can’t have depth without a shallow end.