With the release of Dredd 3D at midnight tonight, Lionsgate and DNA Films will attempt to redeem the character of Judge Dredd in the eyes of the American public, who by and large were not familiar with him until the poorly-received Sylvester Stallone film in 1995. In the years since, that film (and by extension the character) has become a pop culture punchline (if you need evidence of this, just watch Scrubs).
But Dredd 3D is not Judge Dredd. Dredd 3D is a terrific film, with strong performances all around and a great, simple story that plays up what's the most easily accessible aspects of Dredd's mythology while leaving the rest of it for presumptive future installments.
What makes us say that? We thought you'd never ask...
Karl Urban is a fan of Judge Dredd, and it's clear he gets it. He also understands that one doesn't need to SHOUT ALL THE TIME in order to be badass. In fairness, Dredd is often drawn with his mouth wide open and spittle trailing all over the cover of comic books, but the calm, quiet demeanor of Urban's Dredd is much more in keeping with someone who's in control and sure of himself than was the outwardly emotional, just-this-side-of-crazy version Stallone brought to the table.
Oh, and has been noted a number of times, you got a big-name actor with both chops and geek cred, who understood the part enough that he took a job where most of his face would be covered for the entire film.
To compare the Mega City One of Judge Dredd to that of Dredd 3D is a bit like comparing Joel Schumacher's Gotham City to Christopher Nolan's. Not only is the setting of Dredd 3D better done, but it's so self-evidently better-done that the city almost takes on an identity of its own, a gritty and dangerous place rather than a sleek, high-tech wonderland where violent things just happen to take place in between big, noisy set pieces.
The whole place is just...dingy. Nothing about it feels like The Jetsons, it's more Blade Runner. And that's why it's better.
This one's a bit on the spoilery side, but we'll keep that to a minimum. There exists imperfections in the Law in both Judge Dredd and Dredd 3D.
The new film, however, plays them a lot more realistically and you come out with a feeling that the whole system isn't necessarily broken because of a few bad apples. It makes a sequel seem plausible, where in the case of the Stallone movie, a huge opening would have created problems for a sequel because Dredd would presumably have had to significantly change his worldview in order to cope with what happened to him in the first film.
The big difference is that in Judge Dredd, the entire system is compromised, whereas in Dredd 3D, it's a handful of people who are on the take, essentially. In that translation, it loses some of the potential for social satire, but there's very little satire in this film anyway, as it's a pretty straightforward actioner, so not much is lost--and it's not as though the first movie took advantage of the opportunities for satire that a broken system provided.
Okay, so this one is not so much an indictment of Judge Dredd director Danny Cannon (better known for his work in TV, where he's directed and produced shows like CSI and Nikita) and more about the fact that Pete Travis, who directed Dredd 3D, made an effort to make the film more than just The Fifth Element's ugly stepsister.
And yes, I know that Judge Dredd came before The Fifth Element, but they're remarkably similar in some ways, and Luc Besson managed to make things work that Cannon just couldn't.
Travis is taking the Zack Snyder method--maybe it's a little overly-stylized, but that artsy crap will win it some favor with critics and set it apart from the suspiciously similar The Raid (nobody on either side of that has claimed that the other film ripped them off, by the way--Dredd was apparently written first, the two were in production around the same time, and The Raid made it to theaters first) as well as from the Stallone flick.
One of the things that really didn't work in Judge Dredd was that they tried to make the film an omnibus of a ton of the cool ideas from 2000 AD that fans would presumably have liked to see. We got to see Mega City One, Rico Dredd, Fergee, The Cursed Earth and introduced some of the thematic elements of The Big Lie.
On paper, if you told a fan of the series that all of those things would appear in the film, that fan might think it sounded really promising--but the difficulty comes when you try to cram them all into a 90-something minute movie. None of them got the attention they deserved, and all of them suffered because of it. There were a number of other problems as well, ranging from hokey special effects and cornball dialog to Fergee being officially the most annoying person in the history of American cinema, but the biggest issue, frankly, is that Cannon's script was too big for its britches and the director didn't have what it took to either make the necessary cuts or make the crowded movie work--so he ended up with a stinker.
Dredd 3D on the other hand is an incredibly simple story. Everything and everyone who appears in the movie gets room to breathe, leaving the viewer feeling like something really worthwhile just happened, even though there maybe weren't a lot of moving parts. In our review, we compared it to something like Die Hard, and that's probably fair. At its core, it's a story that can easily be summed up in a sentence or two, and in a way that makes it sound universal enough that almost anyone should be willing to watch the trailer after having heard that description.