Down by Law
Dredd 3D (2012)
Judge Dredd, Britain's lawman for all seasons — his passport stamped as Robocop's cousin for American purposes while actually being as site-specific as the early works of Johnny Rotten — rides again. And does so in a film stripped down to the bone, all froth removed jointly by author and budget until there's nothing left but sinew and gristle, globs of which then splash across the screen. Arriving just as the doors shut on Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" odyssey and its many tons of polished microengineering, "Dredd 3D" turns the dial back to a point nearer John Carpenter and Richard Stanley, to films set 20 minutes into the future, where the neon doesn't work and the daylight doesn't penetrate, and around the corner someone with an overdraft waits to separate you from your head.
The credits say "Dredd" is directed by Pete Travis and scripted/produced by Alex Garland, but the arrangement looks a lot like the one between Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg on "Poltergeist." The style and mood on display seem squarely Mr. Garland's, and "Dredd" has the same feel of an unhurried and un-American activity as "Sunshine" and "28 Days Later," along with the same knack for getting under the skin of characters coming to the boil. The contrast with the 1995 "Judge Dredd" hardly needs to be spelled out, although that film was a product of its time as surely as this one is. (And turned a profit on a bigger budget than this, marshaled by a man then much younger than the makers of this one and who presumably has a percentage stake in the "CSI" franchise. Danny Cannon probably sleeps soundly enough.)
Comparisons with "The Raid: Redemption" aren't very relevant either. Yes, "Dredd" finds Judges Dredd (Karl Urban) and Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) fighting their way up and down a sealed tower block full of heavies. But martial-arts films deal in balletic excesses of the human body as a route into the characters, and the circus showmanship of the splatter — this is not that. This character was always about two things: the iconic tradition of the antihero cop with questionable methods and a society where the screws have come loose thanks to six inches of radioactive dust. "Dredd" nails both of these as fairly and squarely as a film dealing in low-budget claustrophobia reasonably could have managed.
It certainly feels like exactly the film Mr. Garland intended. A sign of this comes once a whole group of judges are in play and none of them remove their helmets or pander to easy viewer identification while blazing away at each other. Presumably any script notes about all that went directly into the bin. Shot by no less a genius than Anthony Dod Mantle and making inventive use of its 3-D, right up to what looks a lot like some artificial 3-D grain, "Dredd" has its share of luminous slow-motion ultraviolence but also a fine grubby atmosphere for Mr. Urban and Ms. Thirlby to navigate.
Both those actors are perfectly fine. Both have the shared misfortune to be up against Lena Headey. There exists a cabal of like-minded individuals who believe that Ms. Headey should be in everything; that she is our best hope for a clean break from the tendency of stage-school molded, introverted and excessively British British actors to crop up in American genre films and then look uncomfortable. There are some fine exceptions to be sure, but Ms. Headey is simply the opposite: a screen performer to the core in the more extrovert American tradition, who grabs "Dredd" by the throat and a few areas lower down. She turns drug lord Ma-Ma into a sullen queen cobra — scars courtesy of the makeup department, most tattoos the model's own. Ms. Headey's baleful gaze dominates everything; surrounded by an endless parade of large scowling actors several inches taller than herself, she dwarfs them all from below. At one point she directed that gaze directly toward the viewer for a flashback while covered in blood, and chewed through the fourth wall for good measure.