Karl Urban stars as Judge Dredd in "Dredd 3D." (Joe Alblas, Lionsgate )
Smartly cast and with a sharp team behind the scenes, there is no good reason why "Dredd 3D" is such a clunk-headed action picture.
In the future, a single urban core sprawls from Boston to D.C., patrolled by officers who function as a self-contained legal system — judge, jury and executioner. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and a training-day rookie (Olivia Thirlby) become trapped within a crime-ridden high-rise and are forced to fight their way up and out.
Screenwriter and producer Alex Garland previously has taken on dystopian sci-fi in "28 Days Later," "Sunshine" and "Never Let Me Go," injecting each with a beating heart that is sorely lacking in this latest comic-book adaptation.
Directed by Pete Travis, "Dredd 3D" becomes burdened by the same structural dilemma as the recent "The Raid: Redemption" — once the cops are locked into fighting their way out of the building the film simply becomes a monotonous series of bad-guy confrontations.
Urban is stuck throughout the entire film acting from beneath a helmet, with only his jaw and mouth visible; his eyes are hidden beneath a dark visor. Thirlby, an actress of transparent vulnerability, thankfully doesn't wear a helmet because it would interfere with her character's psychic abilities, but that also burdens her with the entire emotional weight of the film.
Lena Headey brings a perverse mixture of glee and regret to her drug-lord villainess.
The drug she sells is called "Slo-Mo," which allows cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, a key conceiver of contemporary digital aesthetics working here in 3-D for the first time, a chance for dazzling effects and an opportunity to shift the film's dank color palette to something brightly irradiated.
That "Dredd's" cinematography is one of its strongest assets speaks to the film's larger problems — the parts and pieces just don't have the total impact they should, like a punch sailing helplessly through the air rather than forcefully smacking its target.
MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence, drug use and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: In general release