Film review: 'Dredd 3D' better than the original

Much as “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) was a second failed attempt to exploit Big Green (after the broad discontent with Ang Lee's 2003 “Hulk”), “Dredd 3D” also tries to reboot a stillborn franchise. Luckily, the new version (from “Vantage Point” director Pete Travis) is far more satisfying than its predecessor.

Those with longish memories may recall the first Judge Dredd movie, made back in 1995. I am one of those unfortunate ones. Sylvester Stallone played the title character, a bit of casting that right away meant throwing out one of the signal attributes of the original long-running comic; i.e., we're not supposed to ever see Dredd's mug. He wears a helmet that covers two-thirds of his face. The design is one of the similarities that caused fanboys to foolishly assert that “RoboCop” was just a ripoff of the Dredd comics.

But why hire a star if you're going to make him 95% unrecognizable? So off came the mask. That choice crippled the film; casting Rob Schneider as the “comic relief” sidekick pretty much finished it off.

Karl Urban, the new Dredd, is not yet a star despite appearing in two of the “Lord of the Rings” films, “The Bourne Supremacy” and J.J. Abrams 2009 “Star Trek” reboot. He's a good actor — check him out in Bruce Willis' underappreciated “Red” some time — but he's handsome in a generic way, as though a gene-splicing Hollywood computer was tasked to create a template for Attractive Young Male to Play “The Guy Who Doesn't Get the Girl” and Other Not-Quite-Leading Roles. I'm not sure I could identify him in a lineup with Seth MacFarlane.

So, like Tom Hardy in “The Dark Knight Rises,” we only see his mouth and environs. With his movement constricted by a bulky uniform, his performance has to be conveyed entirely by that small bit of facial real estate and the raspy Dirty Harry voice he affects for his occasional lines of dialogue. For all we know, this Dredd might not be Urban at all. It could be Seth MacFarlane without the smirk, looped by Clint Eastwood without the chair.

The serviceable story is a bit like “District B13,” and more than a bit like “The Raid: Redemption”: In a dystopic, not-so-distant future, the world has been reduced largely to rubble. The population of North America is clustered in four crime-ridden extended urban areas. To keep the chaos in check, the justice system has been simplified: Members of the elite corps of so-called judges are actually judge, jury and executioner. In Mega City One — basically the current Boston/D.C. corridor — the most feared of these is Judge Dredd.

While he's field-testing judgeship candidate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) — it's her final, make-or-break exam — the pair investigate a triple homicide in Peachtree, a 200-story residential building. They capture a high-up member (Wood Harris) of the gang that controls drugs and vice in Peachtree and need to get him safely outside. But gang boss Ma Ma (gorgeous Lena Headey, scarred and skanked-up and still looking, well, hot) overrides the building's computer controls, seals all exits and announces over the P.A. that the two judges (and maybe their hostage) must die.

From then on, it's all rat-a-tat guns that launch explosives and fireballs and a whole lot of bullets, generating much mayhem and noise.

Which is fine, because it's quite well-done mayhem and noise, and it has no pretense to anything more. The film also sports some first-rate cinematography by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire” and several Lars Von Trier films). Most of the violence is strictly in cartoon-reality, meaning that it rarely seems disturbing. Nonetheless, there are a handful of brief seriously gruesome shots.

The film is not merely being shown in 3D, but was, unlike many such releases, actually shot in 3D (rather then being converted in postproduction). Both sound and depth are used with some restraint; neither my eyes nor my ears complained.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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