I'll admit, it's been a number of years since I've even accidentally laid eyes upon Sylvester Stallone JUDGE DREDD, but in my faded memory of the film, I remember it as a comedy. The scenes that stick in my head are of Stallone and Rob Schneider. I'm sure die-hard fans of the source material comic book were appalled; I simply watched it, shrugged and moved on to the next Stallone movie, which he was still pumping out at a fairly regular pace back in the mid-90s.
So the best advice I can give you going into director Peter Travis' (VANISHING POINT) DREDD is pretend like that other one never existed. This version seems perfectly synched, stylized (but not overly so), hyper-violent, pulp science fiction that paints the picture of the world in the not-to-distant future where a huge portion of the eastern seaboard of America has become one giant scorched earth city where crime runs rampant, and the only way to expedite the justice system is to have the national police force (known as Judges) serve as law enforcement, judge, jury, and if necessary, executioner. And very often, they find it necessary. There's no emotion involved in the judgements, no defense, and the judges seem to have a lot of flexibility about how they can carry out executions, so it allows for creativity on the job, I guess.
But even among the names of judges whispered in the Hall of Justice, that of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, of LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR TREK fame) seems to be the stuff of legend in terms of his exploits and swiftly delivered style of justice. As it should be, despite the fact that Urban is a classically handsome actor, we never see more than his nose and snarling mouth for the entire film. He puts on a gruff voice that reminded me a middle-aged Clint Eastwood mixed with a little of Christian Bale's Batman (not quite that whispery, but ragged nonetheless). The result is a persona that civilians would rightfully fear just from his stature and tone. And the fact that he kills a lot of bad guys without hesitation.
The blood and gore in this film seems to have a heavy emphasis on chunks. Brain matter and other head-wound debris seem to be the order of the day. When a bad guy takes a bullet or has an explosive device rip through their body, we are rarely spared the details, and I'm quite okay with that; some of you may find it too much. What I find fascinating is that despite the high body count in DREDD, I actually remember many specific kills, partially because we experience several of them in slow motion. The reason for this is that many of the victims are on a drug called Slo-Mo, which makes your brain experience the world at 1 percent the speed, which makes a long fall down a 200-story building seem like an eternity.
After we see Judge Dredd dispense with justice first time, he is saddled with the unenviable task of assessing the readiness of a rookie judge named Cassandra (Olivia Thurlby, completely breaking type with her usual indie-film, quirky-girl roles). She is expected to fail the process because she technically failed the entrance exam, but it turns out she has psychic abilities (mutants are apparently common in this version of the future) that allow her to read minds with startling accuracy. The Justice system thinks she'd be useful, and Dredd is expected to field train her for a day.
The pair are called to the aforementioned housing project known as the Peach Trees, a massive steel structure run by the Ma-Ma clan, to investigate a triple homicide. Ma-Ma is actually a scared former prostitute played by Lena Headey (300, "Game of Thrones"), and she is one nasty bitch who regularly punishes anyone who crosses her by skinning them alive before murdering them. You will grow to fear her and her rather oily-looking facial scars.
During their investigation, the judges take into custody one of Ma-Ma's lieutenants, Kay (Wood Harris from "The Wire"), and she does not like that one bit since they plan on taking him in on suspicion of the murders. Ma-Ma is more worried about his cracking under interrogation and spilling the beans about her operation, so she puts the entire building on lockdown and announces to the building that she'd be ever-so grateful if someone in the complex would take out the judges. The film eventually becomes a race by the judges to either get out of the building (not likely) or go up the entire 200 stories to take out Ma-Ma and her crew and anyone else in the building that might do them harm. If this scenario sounds suspiciously like the plot of THE RAID, yeah, there's not much I can say to discourage that line of thinking--it's remarkably similar. But the good news is, both films are very good; DREDD is just a whole lot bigger in scale.
Travis does a remarkable job of keeping things moving, while keeping the tone serious but with room for the darkest of dark humor. Thurlby is not on hand to deliver quippy dialogue or be the hapless female in this endeavor. She makes rookie mistakes, but that's in line with her character's level of experience; not because she's a woman holding a big gun. She seems more vulnerable only because she's the only judge that doesn't wear a helmet (it interferes with her mind-reading abilities), but by being able to see her face, she also humanizes the almost robot-like judges. But she kills and takes the hits with the best of them. Judge Dredd is the badass that you want from this film, but Cassandra is the heart and soul of a film that would die under its own weight without her.
I should also mention a nice supporting turn by Domhnall Gleeson (one half of HARRY POTTER's Weasley twins) as Ma-Ma's computer tech, who is treated like some sort of pet to her, and not in the good way. But in the end, the film comes down to the dynamic between Urban and Thirlby, which is both as student/teacher and as equals. Many of the snap judgements in the film belong to her, not him, and by him giving her that responsibility, she is allowed to show just how ready she is for the job (or not), and it makes us respect her more immediately.
I should mention that DREDD is in 3-D, but aside from a few shots near the beginning of the film and most of the slow-motion sequences, the film is so dark that I rarely even noticed that 3-D was part of the movie. With any 3-D work, I tend to get a lot of emails asked if the up-charge is worth it; in this case, it is not. Aside from that, if you can handle truckloads of graphic violence, you're in for a hardcore action ride the likes of which I haven't seen in quite some time from a mainstream, non-horror release. Prepare to have your mind and eyes assaulted in the best possible way.