Futuristic sci-fi action spectacle doesn't get much more hardcore than the stuff found in the second rendition of the comic book known as Judge Dredd. The first version arrived in 1995 as one of Sylvester Stallone's more misshapen and disposable action flicks, and promptly vanished without a trace. The new film is a completely different beast: a stylistically audacious, narratively sparse, and unapologetically nasty action-fest that throws a lot of kinetic craziness at the screen for 94 minutes.
Dredd is about as deep as a sidewalk puddle, but to its legitimate credit, it is a very bad-ass little piece of action cinema that tosses just a dash of futuristic sci-fi into the mix to keep the premise interesting. It is a bleak and oppressive future, logically, and the only semblance of law and order that exists in Mega-City One are the judges. They're a lot like today's cops, only they're also allowed to cast judgment on their suspects, which of course means they can also carry out punishments. Most of the punishments are death by bullet.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, perpetually masked and entirely bad-ass), one of the best on the force, is tasked with breaking in a new recruit, but when a horrifying drug baroness known as MaMa locks down her massive apartment building and puts a bounty on the heads of the veteran Dredd and the rookie Anderson, that's when Dredd goes from diverting sci-fi to blistering action. Director Pete Travis seems to realize that the set-up and the premise (adapted by the reliable genre screenwriter Alex Garland) are not nearly as important as the execution, so he fills his numerous action sequences with all sorts of visual tricks. As Dredd and Anderson plow their way through a seemingly endless barrage of bad guys, the flick grinds into stylish slo-mo and then back to "normal" speed just in time to see a scummy henchman or a dirty cop get splattered in very gory detail.
Some superhero adaptations lean on the soft side of the violence in order to be a bit more family-friendly, and that generally works for Spider-Man, but this Judge Dredd character is clearly a different kind of beast. (I've never read the source material, but one can assume that the new Dredd hews a lot closer to the comic book than the Stallone version did.) And since it's always nice to see a "superhero" flick that tosses some ultra-violence into the mix, Dredd earns also high marks for starting out stark, staying aggressive, and displaying a very dark but rather welcome sense of humor.
Urban is clearly committed to keeping his anti-hero interesting, even if he is buried beneath a clunky helmet for the whole film, and Olivia Thirlby adds some charm and class as a newbie Judge who has a secret skill that turns out to be pretty handy. Kudos also to the lovely Lena Headey for showing up scarred, vicious, and (dare I say?) ugly to play a villain who is easily nasty enough to pose a threat to our more-than-capable heroes. Dredd is basically cinematic fast food for grown-ups, truth be told, but it's one of those rare fast food meals that actually tastes freshly-made and pretty damn good.