At first glance, Dredd seems just a little too familiar. There are the obvious reasons, of course—its title character has been blasting his way through the pages of the British sci-fi comic-book anthology 2000 AD for 35 years now, and there can never be enough time between the present and the abominable 1995 film adaptation that starred Sylvester Stallone and somehow managed to dodge everything good about the source material.
Then there's the fact that director Pete Travis' ultraviolent reboot is structured almost identically to last year's The Raid: The protagonists are trapped in a high-rise apartment complex controlled by a sadistic gang lord, and must fight their way to the top with no hope for backup and no contact with the outside world.
So we've seen it a lot, and we've seen it recently—and it doesn't matter one bit. Dredd is a gorgeous, grimy, and relentlessly gory spectacle that gets most of the important things right. It takes the "leave 'em wanting more" principle of showmanship a little too far—Dredd himself is as much an enigma in the final frames as in the first, and confining nearly all of the action to one building wastes the intriguing world that is set up in the comic and in the film's thunderous opening chase scene—but it gives us plenty of what we came for. Dredd rarely stops to catch its breath. It has two modes: bombastic, expertly staged action scenes, and closing credits.
If you're new to the world of the judges, don't worry. The movie's first scenes will sum it up for you, Dredd-style: tersely and with a body count. Karl Urban (who, in an admirable commitment to the character, never takes off his helmet) stars as Judge Dredd, a futuristic cop who has the authority to try and execute criminals immediately upon apprehension. He's charged with assessing rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a psychic refugee from the irradiated wastelands that surround Dredd's base of operations, the dystopian urban jungle known as Mega-City One. When Dredd and Anderson are called to a high-rise slum to investigate a gruesome triple murder, they're trapped in the 200-story building at the mercy of hooker-turned-crime boss Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her legions of heavily armed foot soldiers.
Everything that comes next is just an excuse to keep the bullets flying. Dredd swaps The Raid's balletic, hand-to-hand fight scenes and fluid camera movement for chaotic gunplay and ultra-slow motion effects. Fatty tissue ripples in the concussive waves of an explosion; flesh puckers and splits before a bullet slowly tears through it. If you've ever wondered what it would look like when a projectile tears through someone's mouth in cartoonish slow-motion (and 3D!), Dredd has the surprising answer: pretty freaking awesome.
If Alex Garland's script is sometimes short on insight into Dredd's world and its characters, he certainly gives Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle plenty of room to play. Garland kindly indulges Mantle by saddling the film's droves of thugs with an addiction to a drug called Slo-Mo; when they're high—and they usually are—Ma-Ma's soldiers experience the world around them at 1 percent of its actual speed. Mantle, best known for his collaborations with Lars von Trier and Danny Boyle, crafts some truly striking images in the midst of Travis' meticulously structured action sequences. He uses 3D effects in inventive ways, most notably in the frequent, high-resolution close-ups he inserts among the explosions, shoot-outs, and chase scenes that make up the bulk of the film. Dredd's look might be contrived and indulgent, but it's also creative, sometimes beautiful, and often genuinely artful.
Garland's story misses more than a few dramatic opportunities, and might disappoint viewers hoping to see more of Mega-City One or the Cursed Earth that surrounds it, but it still has plenty of meat on its bones. There are some beautifully scripted dramatic beats here, such as the moment when a violent criminal discovers there's much more to Anderson than meets the eye. Performances are uniformly solid, with Headey standing out as the truly frightening and unpredictable Ma-Ma.
In spite of all it has going for it, Dredd will undoubtedly be a tough sell. It is, after all, a bloody, hard-R adaptation of a comic book that most mainstream viewers in the U.S. have never read. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves, and its unabashed attempt to launch a new sci-fi action franchise will land us at least one return to this gritty, seductive world.