It might not be too debatable that Dredd 3D works as a more faithful introduction to the cult comic lawman from the future than the character’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle from 1995, but it’s not better by much. This uneasy feeling collaboration between somewhat unproven director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and established writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) never really takes off with lacklustre and somewhat dully staged action and a director that doesn’t fully understand the humour and satire behind the titular cop/judge/jury/executioner. It’s dishwater dull at worst and intermittently silly, but far too infrequently to be fun.
In a distant future where all but one enormous mega city remains in North America, the helmeted and stoically fascist lawman Dredd (Karl Urban) finds himself assigned to testing out a rookie partner with psychic abilities (Olivia Thirlby) while investigating a particularly dangerous assignment tied to the sale and manufacture of a drug called Slo-mo that makes addicts think that time has slowed down around them. The key supplier of this inhaled substance is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who has hacked and slashed her way to the top of the drug game and holes herself up in the Peachtree tenement complex. When a drug hit gone awry draws the attention of Dredd and his partner, Ma-Ma locks the complex down, settles in for war, and places a bounty on their heads.
What sounds like it should be the set up for a fun actioner in the style of The Raid or a gritty sci-fi take on Assault on Precinct 13 ends up being a bit of a slog despite looking great and a decent script from Garland. The real problem here is Travis, who lets his cast, writer, and cinematographer do all the work because he just simply doesn’t know how to stage an action sequence. In a time where action films have really stepped up their game to make the viewer believe that anything is possible, simply watching people mow each other down with guns from across a hallway feels draggy the longer it goes on.
What’s even more maddening is just how much talent and obvious effort is being made by everyone with hopes of making it all work. Garland’s story isn’t necessarily basic, but it’s certainly simple enough to explain away any nitpicky plot holes and conveniences. Urban, Thirlby, and especially Headey are all perfectly cast and elevate the film almost to a moderate level of likability on their own. Even the cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle does some interesting stuff with slow motion effects, but Travis never lets him do anything more exciting than shooting people getting high or glass shattering into goofy looking purple sparkles.
Sure, there’s very little drama, logic, or morality involved in a film like Dredd, and nor should there be. But there should be more than this, especially when you have all the elements to make a good film. The film just botches the execution. How else can one explain a film where the heroes have guns that can fire dozens of different types of rounds, but they still look dull no matter what’s being shot because there’s no tension or spectacle? Dredd should have either gone full out futuristic or even grittier in the opposite direction. Instead, it’s a decent looking, passingly intriguing, and well acted dud that reeks of a missed opportunity.