The rot in any system - whether its a computer system or an economic system - always asserts itself in the long run and one of the primary functions of science fiction/futurism is to fast-forward us to the future in order to expose the rot at the heart of our current way of viewing the world. Dredd is all about the rot whether economic, political or social and as such stakes a kinship to other cautionary sci-fi tales like "Blade Runner" and "Brazil". While "Dredd" is not in the same class as those legendary movies, it is at least in the conversation.
MegaCity 1 is what the current Boston to Washington megalopolis has devolved into in the future. 800 million inhabitants in the only habitable land left in a post nuclear catastrophe US. The sense of overbearing urbanity is continually reinforced by wide shots from every conceivable angle, creating the sense of an ant farm more than a city full of human beings.
Like any city MegaCity 1 is rife with drug users and suppliers. For the purposes of our story the supplier is Lena Heady's "Mama" an ex-hooker who rose to the top of MegaCity 1's drug pecking order by castrating her former boss with her teeth and then, somehow, taking over his business. She's thrived by spreading the wealth intelligently at the Hall of Justice, effectively buying herself a no-go zone for the judges.
Karl Urban is Judge Dredd, mega enforcer of the law and the one who has the unfortunate (for both sides who'll become involved) job of responding to a series of murders committed by Mama's men at her up-to-now judge-free mega block.
Olivia Thirlby is Dredd's rookie foil "Anderson"; an enormous step up in the foil department from the original film's Rob Schneider whose primary function was to act so pathetic that his patheticism (I made a new word!) would make Stallone's machismo that much more machismoistic (I did it again!), like a primary color popping on a neutral background. Anderson is no neutral background - she's more a complementary color - and, surprise, Karl Urban's Dredd doesn't suffer from having a strong counterpoint. In fact the entire film is buttressed by the taut and wary way the two leads eye each other throughout. Anderson is never quite sure if Dredd is a psychopath, Dredd never quite sure if Anderson's compassion is born of weakness or strength.
The majority of the film is a cat and mouse game that takes place in the aforementioned "megablock" that has the wonderfully incongruous name "Peach Trees" and which is essentially a building out of "the projects" on a steroid drip. Mama doesn't really want Dredd or Anderson. What she wants is the member of her gang that they've arrested and were attempting to take to the Hall of Justice. He knows everything about her operation and she can't afford to have him crack under interrogation. The danger in confining so much of the film to one location is that it'll start to wear but "Peach Trees" is so large the action never bogs down. Instead it moves from room to corridor to elevator and from level to level and is saved from becoming mundane by strong performances and compelling characterizations.
Karl Urban was maybe the perfect choice to play the eternally masked Dredd. Not being quite on the A-list yet the studio was able to exercise their power by insisting he keep his helmet on throughout. Yet Urban is such a fine actor that even though we never see his eyes we nonetheless get into Dredd's head via Urban's spot on body language, timing and vocalizations. That's no small accomplishment.
While Dredd has overtones of being a totalitarian fantasy, its really a totalitarian critique, and quite a good one though you may have to be on your toes to pick up some of the signs. The action is well modulated and full of kinetic energy without ever stooping to brain jarring jump cuts every nanosecond. If I have a gripe with Dredd its the fact that there is virtually no justification for this to be a 3D film and everyone would have been better off leaving the 3D idea on the whiteboard in the conference room.
Regardless of how this film performs at the box office during it's initial run (and it certainly seems like it's off to a rough start) I have a feeling that appreciation for it will grow over time. At least I hope so.