In Mega City One, a walled fortress that stretches from New York to Boston, criminals run rampant, but always in the back of their minds is the fear of the Judges, who are also jury and executioner. Judge Dredd is particularly devoted to his job of keeping the law, relentlessly pursuing criminals and administering the harsh justice of his society. Dredd , played by Karl Urban, ends up in a tangle at the mega-block of Peach Trees, against a drug dealer known as Ma-Ma and her murderous clan, who skin people alive and throw them off the top story in the mega-block to teach people a lesson. They do this to protect their trade in Slo-Mo, a drug made for 3D movies if there ever was one, because it makes the brain react as if everything is happening at one percent of its normal speed and results in the most artful sequences in Dredd 3D. With Dredd in Peach Trees is a rookie named Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby. She’s paired with him for an in-field assessment. Dredd’s superiors want her tested because she’s a mutant with a powerful talent for reading minds. If she passes, then they’ve gained a small advantage against the criminals of Mega City One.
Dredd 3D isn’t the only movie version of Dredd, though the other, starring Sylvester Stallone, is almost twenty years old now, and was fairly forgettable even then. Stallone barely ever wore Dredd’s trademark helmet, a sin for which fans of the comic never forgave him.
Director Pete Travis does everything he can to expunge Stallone’s version from the viewer’s mind, though maybe he goes a little too far, because we have no real sense of the larger world in which Dredd operates. He and Anderson go into Peach Trees very early in the film and we spend almost every moment in there with them. It ends up being symbolic of the way Dredd views the world he lives in: every day is just another opportunity to dispense justice to those who deserve it. Pity or compassion never enter Dredd’s view, he is unmoved by the circumstances of those he’s sentencing with very few exceptions. It only happens twice in the film and none of the characters comment on it at all.
Karl Urban manages to keep his helmet on the entire time, as he said he would when he first took the role, and he never cracks a smile or makes a joke. He’s grim, just like the world he’s in. He does manage to have a few funny lines, though it’s wry gallows humor, not action hero one-liners. Dredd is a judgement machine, and once he decides that Ma-Ma needs to be Judged, nothing she throws at him will stop him from doing so.
Anderson is a bit softer, as one would expect from a rookie Judge, though it’s not a weakness in her character because it doesn’t stop her from doing her job, although paired with Dredd, her actions always seem less extreme.
The film doesn’t turn away from the violence of Dredd’s world, it shows it in graphic, almost loving detail. Enemies fall under Dredd and Anderson’s guns in vivid and interesting ways. The attack on an apartment filled with gang members on Slo-Mo is particularly graphic, with bullets shown carving human flesh in the slowed down time experienced by the drug users.
Lena Headey plays Ma-Ma, and she does a great job as the leader of her clan, but she’s really just a target for Dredd to aim at. She gets the most backstory out of any of the characters in the film, but it doesn’t do her a great deal of good, because she’s stuck at the top of the building and has to leave most of the action to her minions, which any evil overlord knows is a big mistake.
The 3D is used to great effect, and I think it’s the best way to see the film, because some scenes, especially the Slo-Mo powered ones, would lose a lot of their coolness in 2D.