Remember that old TV cartoon show “Clutch Cargo”? It was so low-budget that, rather than animate the characters talking, they would cut a hole in the face and show a real, human mouth speaking the dialogue. It was creepy, but that effect at least made the kiddie program something of a standout in bizarro pop culture.
Don’t expect “Dredd 3D” to be nearly as memorable, despite the fact that actor Karl Urban spends the whole film wearing a helmet that covers practically his entire face, leaving only the movements of his mouth to do all the acting. If the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Judge Dredd” annoyed fans of the original British comics by having the hero wear his trademark helmet too infrequently, “Dredd 3D” will no doubt put off mainstream audiences by trapping the hero in both headgear and an underwritten screenplay that erase his humanity.
In this second big-screen adaptation of the graphic serial created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Mega City is a post-apocalyptic dystopia covering the area between Washington D.C. and Boston, where newer 200-story atrium blocks sit nestled among crumbling skyscrapers. The city’s cops are “Judges,” entitled not only to enforce the law but also to carry out sentences instantly, even when that sentence is death.
Judge Dredd is given the task of breaking in rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby); she didn’t quite pass training, but as her name suggests, she’s a powerful psychic. What begins as a routine tour of duty through the mean streets of Mega City takes a twist when the two judges apprehend a drug dealer working for notorious crime boss Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Not sure enough of his guilt to execute him on the spot, the cops plan to haul in their suspect for interrogation.
To keep that from happening, Ma-Ma puts the whole block on lockdown and instructs the tenants to either kill the judges or to stay out of the way of the coming carnage. And if that sounds identical to the plot of “The Raid: Redemption,” the acclaimed Indonesian import from earlier this year, that’s because it is. And even if the similarity between the two is pure coincidence, “Dredd 3D” suffers greatly by comparison, as it fails to muster even half of the thrills of its predecessor.
Not that “Dredd 3D” fails outright: The screenplay by Alex Garland (a frequent collaborator of Danny Boyle’s) and Pete Travis’ direction offer up occasional moments of ultra-violent jolts and mordant wit, like the robot janitor cleaning up the scene of a bloody shopping-center massacre as a mechanical voice chirps, “The Level One food court will reopen in 30 minutes.”
But we never get to know Dredd or Cassandra as anything but functionaries of a not-particularly-fresh plot, even though the latter’s psychic abilities are the excuse to let the character go out helmet-less. Ma-Ma’s main stock in trade is a drug that makes addicts perceive the world in slow motion, and it’s mainly used for some flashy but ultimately pointless shots of water drops and plummeting bodies and random bullets moving frame-by-frame-by-frame.
“Dredd 3D” is the kind of movie that flirts with a Fascist point of view about law and order but barely acknowledges it while also firing round after round of ammo at its heroes without bothering to explain how they almost never get hit. If this film were a little smarter or a little dumber, it might have been a great deal more fun.