A wickedly dark comic streak breaks up the vivid violence and relentless bleakness of "Dredd 3D."
The action extravaganza from director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland, based on the cult-favorite British comic series "2000 A.D.," offers a fully realized world with both intensity and tension. But after about an hour the claustrophobia of it all - the dreary, concrete sameness and the overpowering electronic score - feels smothering and grows tiresome. Maybe that's the point, though: to wear us down.
The visceral visuals, shot in 3-D by Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" cinematographer and frequent Lars Von Trier collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle, feature extreme close-ups and sequences of super-cool slow-motion photography, which wisely are spread sparingly throughout the course of the picture. A guy doesn't just get shot in the face - we see the bullet enter his mouth and send blood spurting out his cheek through the screen in such deliberate, distinct fashion, you can practically count the drops.
Karl Urban stars as the stoic Judge Dredd, the baddest bad-ass of them all in a dystopian future where enforcers like him serve as judge, jury and executioner, right on the spot. Dredd is the most fearsome of the judges in the squalid, densely populated Mega City One, with his ever-present helmet and a low, monotone grumble that recalls both Christian Bale's Batman and Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. He acts entirely with his mouth and his sheer intimidating presence. He gets no poignant origin story.
(For the uninitiated, Dredd is actually much funnier than this description makes him sound; his terse, deadpan responses to the most absurdly graphic and depraved situations provoke many of the biggest laughs.)
Olivia Thirlby, best known for indies and comedies like "Juno," has a calm yet confident presence as the rookie Judge Anderson, who happens to have been assigned to Dredd for training upon one particularly bloody day. Her psychic abilities make her an asset when things get especially chaotic, and her slightly ethereal nature provides a welcome complement to Dredd's intense groundedness. She also serves as our emotional guide to a world that's essentially emotionless, aside from fear.
Dredd and Anderson respond to a gory triple homicide at the Peach Trees housing complex, a 200-story ghetto tower ruled from on high by the ruthless prostitute-turned-drug-lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, her beautiful features disfigured by a severe facial scar). When the judges take one of her lieutenants into custody as a suspect (Wood Harris, best known as Avon Barksdale from "The Wire"), Ma-Ma puts the whole place on lockdown and insists she'll keep it that way until someone shoots the judges dead.
Many of the residents are happy to do her bidding because a) they're deathly afraid of her and b) she's got them hooked on a powerful drug called Slo-Mo, which reduces the sensation of reality to 1 percent of its usual speed. These moments make "Dredd 3D" stand out visually from so many other movies, whether they're action flicks or drug films. Oversaturated and finely detailed, the Slo-Mo sequences are mesmerizing for their richly colored and radiantly sparkling beauty - and again, Travis doesn't overdo them, which is key.
Hardcore fans of the comic who hated the jokey 1995 "Judge Dredd," starring Sylvester Stallone as the title character and featuring Rob Schneider, won't just be relieved to see this incarnation. They'll be downright giddy.
"Dredd 3D," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content. Running time: 98 minutes. Three stars out of four.