Reviewed by: David Graham

"Pete Travis works hard to bring John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's apocalyptic vision to life."

A new take on British comic book stable 2000AD's most famous son has been a labor of love for Alex Garland, dogged by the unmitigated failure of Sly Stallone's sacrilegiously helmet-shedding Nineties incarnation. The studios' hesitance has probably worked in the resulting film's favor though, as it arrives relatively raw and un-tampered with, sporting a well-earned 18 cert for all sorts of splattery goodness. Vantage Point director Pete Travis works hard to bring John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's apocalyptic vision to life, and his visual sense brings both grit and beauty in abundance, but he's lumbered with an uninspired set-up and struggles to wring much suspense from the wall-to-wall action, despite the best efforts of an engaging cast.

With 22nd century Earth largely scorched and inhabitable, 800 million people crowd into America's Megacity 1, stretching from Boston to Washington and policed by Street Judges who act as judge, jury and executioner alike. Judge Dredd is perhaps the most feared and renowned, but his patience is tested when he is dumped with Anderson, a young recruit who has been flunking her entrance exams but possesses a unique attribute that might just make up for her shortcomings. On a routine homicide investigation, the pair find themselves locked in a tower block presided over by drug-lord Ma-Ma's lethal clan, who are using the building as a production lab for Slo-Mo, the latest narcotic to ravage the streets. Dredd and Anderson must work their way up the floors through an army of thugs if they hope to take Ma-Ma down and escape with their lives.

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The opening chase sequence is thrillingly straightforward, despite Dredd's apparent invulnerability robbing the action of any sense of peril. Travis takes us deep into his inebriated goons' trips, employing lusciously hazy slow motion and blurring color schemes to create one of the most memorable attempts to portray drug-taking since Ang Lee's extended acid meltdown in Taking Woodstock. The bloody, startling gore that accompanies the already visceral scene really gets the audience excited for what lies ahead, and for the first act, it looks like Dredd might really deliver the goods.

So it's a tad disappointing that Garland has indulgently ignored all the outlandish enemies 2000AD threw at the Judge - Judge Death, the Angel Gang - in favour of his own villainess, but Lena Headey makes a suitably coiled and slinky nemesis. We first catch Ma-Ma breaking the first rule of drug-lording - getting high on her own supply - but this only reinforces her bad-ass arrogance and her evident addiction to SloMo ties into her laconic menace. An early execution is as brutal as it is bracing, her use of the substance she peddles to prolong her victims' agony marking her out as a particularly sadistic and therefore worthy opponent to the often equally amoral Dredd.

Urban nails the Bale-as-Batman growl and down-turned demeanor essential for Dredd's character, but sadly he looks a little weedy in the uniform and helmet - perhaps a deficiency of the costume department rather than his own presence, as he's evidently bulked back up to his impressive Pathfinder physique. Dredd's iconic cool is carefully conveyed - never running, confidently rather than recklessly gunning down the bad guys - and for most it'll be a relief that we're spared any attempt at a sympathetic back-story, but aside from Urban's well-delivered Eighties-style quips and Dredd's eventual grudging appreciation for Anderson, the script never really does enough with him, the comics' infamous dark streak largely down-played.

It falls to Olivia Thirlby's surprisingly nuanced turn as Dredd's psychic sidekick to keep the audience invested in what too quickly becomes a repetitive shoot'em-up; her earnest charm and savvy exchanges with the pair's hostage transcend her initial rookie vulnerability. Some of the best moments involve her literally engaging in mind games with those around her, during which Travis often bombards the audience with shocking, near-subliminal imagery and cleverly wrong-foots us as to who's in control (The Wire's Wood Harris stands out here as Ma-Ma's captive henchmen, full of misogynistic bravado but no match for Anderson).

In fact, his film in general makes more meaningful use of its female characters than most of its genre, from Dredd's haughty boss to Ma-Ma's wronged prostitute. One particularly memorable and emotional scene between Anderson and a civilian who shelters the pair of enforcers resonates for its powerful evocation of the gulf in understanding between the sanctimonious law and the people they're supposed to be protecting but often end up inadvertently hurting.

The pounding, industrial-tinged score keeps the blood pumping, while the Slo-Mo scenes glisten with radiant colors that nostalgically evoke the slightly wonky red/blue colour scheme of old-school 3D. The extra dimension here is used well for the first 30 minutes, but once the action moves indoors, it becomes pretty redundant; there's only so much you can do with narrow corridors and Western-style stand-offs. In fact, the whole film loses its lustre the longer we spend trapped in the tower block, even the mega-violence and judiciously employed gadgetry becoming dull in unfortunate but unavoidable comparison to the more full-on, close-quarters adrenaline rush of The Raid.

A seriously under-whelming climax also lets what's come before down, but Travis and Garland deserve credit for restoring Dredd's cred, and making a new franchise an appealing and hopefully realistic proposition. There are no annoying cliffhangers or unresolved romantic undertows at the end, just the promise of more bloodthirsty adventures in this well-crafted world, which may be less flashy than the recent Total Recall remake's take on Philip K Dick's future but is no less involving for its back-to-basics approach.

Reviewed on: 13 Sep 2012
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In the violent dystopia of Mega City One, only the judges can keep order.
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Director: Pete Travis

Writer: Alex Garland

Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey

Year: 2012

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK, India

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