Since 1977, comics character Judge Dredd has patrolled Mega City One, a post-apocalyptic megalopolis on the East Coast of what used to be the United States. His title doesn’t tell the whole story. Like other judges in his grim future, he’s a combination policeman, judicial system, and if need be, executioner. In the future, the law works swiftly and decisively. Due process? The judges are due process. Or as Dredd would put it, he is the law. Never more than a cult favorite in the U.S., Judge Dredd has long been iconic in the UK, which isn’t particularly surprising. The comic contains a vein of ironic dark humor that connects with a greater percentage of British readers than with Americans, and though Dredd stories deliver on the violent potential of their dystopian setting, they’re often very much within that vein.
Making a Dredd movie for global audiences is a tricky proposition. Pander to a bigger crowd by going broad and straying too far from the character’s trademarks—by, say, casting Rob Schneider and Sylvester Stallone, as the 1995 film adaptation did—insures losing a chunk of the audience. Dredd, a second attempt at making Judge Dredd a movie star, overcorrects, veering in the opposite direction with a dark—literally and otherwise—nearly humorless bit of ultraviolence distinguished largely by a fondness for spurting CGI blood.
Here, Cape Town fills in, not that convincingly, for Mega City One. Its post-apocalyptic cityscape doesn’t look that different from those of the 21st century—it’s just bigger. But its criminals keep the judges busy, particularly now that there’s a new drug on the street that causes its users to experience life in slow motion. This gives director Pete Travis all the motivation he needs to indulge his inner Zack Snyder, particularly in the many close-up scenes filled with the aforementioned, unconvincing digital blood.
As if he didn’t have enough to do, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is charged, as the film opens, with breaking in a potential new judge (Olivia Thirlby) with a troubled past and incredible psychic powers. Together, they attempt to ascend a 200-story housing project whose top floor has been taken over by a ruthless drug dealer named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who has no objections to taking out a pair of judges if it means staying in business.
So up they go, through one nondescript corridor after another, and the film grows grimmer and less distinctive with each floor. Alex Garland’s script lays out the Judge Dredd world early, then more or less forgets about it, turning Urban and Thirlby into just another pair of cops, albeit cops in possession of some futuristic guns. Locked in a scowl and doing his best Clint Eastwood, Urban is a fine Dredd, though a flavorless one. And Thirlby invests her character with enough vulnerability and determination to avoid getting lost in the noise. Headey’s eerily soft-spoken villain gets some good moments, but the film is mostly a bunch of flatly staged bits of action shot against anonymous backgrounds. (In 3-D. Because it’s 2012.) It’s 98 minutes of no fun and much gunfire, and though it’s true in some respects to the Dredd of the comics, the spirit of the original remains stubbornly on the page.