Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), particularly frightful member of a dystopian police force of judge/jury/executioner types in an equally dystopian future, has just been saddled with telepathic Judge candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) when the pair is locked into a (dystopian) slum skyscraper. They have to fight their way out or up through the gang of a certain Ma-Ma (Lena Heady), a remarkably psychopathic woman even in a time and place full of violent psychopaths. Parallels to The Raid - Redemption are without a doubt not based on plagiarism but the set-up being ideal for cost-conscious, tight action filmmaking.
After the horrible Stallone abomination, I did not dare hope for a decent adaptation of the long running British comic strip, especially after a trailer that screamed "crap action movie full of shitty one-liners". But sometimes, the universe is gracious, and so Pete Travis's version of the adventures of everyone's favourite fascist turns out to be a pretty darn great bit of the old ultra-violence, with some detours into entertaining surrealism, mostly courtesy of Anderson's telepathic abilities and a drug named Slo-Mo. Personally, I'd have wished for a film that underplays the source's SF parts a little less, and integrates a bit more of the typical sledgehammer satire (which in the case of the 2000AD classic may involve actual sledgehammers). As it stands, I'm not really sure the film understands that its hero is a murderous fascist monster, and that this might be something of a problem.
However, Dredd is a very effective action movie that not only does the blood and the explosions well but also gives age-old action movie tropes - especially when it comes to Olivia Thirlby's pre-Judge Anderson - some mildly clever twists and turns.
The film is also wise enough to not treat its titular hero (as embodied by Karl Urban's chin) as an actual human being with normal human emotions and - yuck - a character arc. It's somewhat ironic to praise a film for not turning its main character into a human being, but doing Dredd right predominantly means resisting the temptation to give him a Hollywood character arc and a "funny" sidekick. Anderson, being a woman in an action movie and all, is the one allowed to have feelings, but, much to my surprise, Alex Garland's script does put genuine effort into not stepping into the worst action movie cliché crap with her, which pays off well.
There's also some very effective acting by Thirlby, Urban's chin (the theoretically ridiculous helmet does in practice work for him and it), and Lena Heady who has slowly turned into a rather impressive actress of female big bads suffering from various degrees of insanity thanks to an ability to chew exactly as much scenery as any given scene can afford or slip into a more naturalistic acting style on a moment's notice.
It's all good, so Dredd's comparative lack of commercial success puzzles me quite a bit.