Review originally published September 8, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
"Guilty pleasure" is a term you'll often hear associated with action films like "Dredd 3D". But I say "no more!" to this whole line of thought. We must cast off our guilt, as that guilt is built upon the faulty premise that an action movie can't bring anything more to the table than spectacle. Not so for this movie. This time around, feel free to stow your shame firmly at the door. Get on board with Karl Urban!
It sounds like sacrilege, but "Dredd 3D" is the rare remake/reboot that's actually far superior to the original. One could make the case that it was only a sentimental and misplaced nostalgia that even allowed for this version to exist, but it doesn't excuse the fact that Sly Stallone's "Judge Dredd" was a cheesy wreck. Lovable? Sure, just like a puppy, and with similar messiness issues. Thankfully, "Dredd 3D" is a real movie, with a logical plot and solid action. Featuring dynamic acting, even!
In the future world of "Dredd 3D," only 80 million people have survived, and all of them are inhabitants of Mega-City 1. They are arranged in districts, and judges (like our buddy Dredd) act as policeman, juries and executioners where the law is concerned. Dredd (Karl Urban) must choose the crimes he prosecutes carefully, as there are 12 crimes in the city every minute and very few judges are left to mete out justice. On this particular day, Dredd finds himself saddled with a trainee named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). It's a classic "Traning Day" scenario, and we've all been there. The mismatched duo heads off to sector 13, to a concrete hamlet charmingly named "Peach Trees," home to 75,000 citizens and one absolutely ruthless gang called the Ma-Mas.
Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) is the diabolical leader of the Ma-Mas, fittingly, and she's decided she can't allow Dredd and Anderson to interrogate one of her gang captains. Have you ever met a person who just won't listen to reason? That's Dredd vs. Ma-Ma, two stone-cold hard cases with legitimate iron wills. Dredd isn't leaving until Ma-Ma faces judgement ... and Ma-Ma isn't going anywhere, or being judged on any level by Judge Dredd. Immovable object, meet the unstoppable force. This antagonistic relationship informs the entire plot, so your enjoyment of this stubbornly violent dichotomy will go a long way toward forming your overall opinion of the movie.
On the acting front, Karl Urban owns the part of Judge Dredd. He's got none of the silliness of the original "Judge Dredd," instead replacing it with a determined scowl and a gruff surliness. Lena Headey also does legitimate work as Ma-Ma, channeling her best impression of Gary Oldman from "True Romance." Olivia Thirlby brings a quiet competence to trainee Anderson, alternating vulnerability with a "fail fast forward" mentality that you'd expect out of a recruit.
Then there is the action quotient, which is high to quite high. While I'm not convinced that this film exactly needed to be in 3-D, I was at least impressed with the overall level of visual effects. The Ma-Mas are drug traffickers, peddling a narcotic named "Slo-mo," and the film does excellent work in showing off the drug's effects. The pacing is also stellar, there's not a dull moment, but it's also not completely frenetic and aimless.
As we pass judgment on "Dredd," it's clear that the only guilt you should feel is if you skip it entirely. Other than that, sit back and enjoy, the movie earns every morsel of entertainment goodness.