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Passing judgment on Dredd'

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Remake far surpasses the original

The recent trend in action movies has been toward a sense of self-awareness. These movies take great pains to let the audience know that they recognize their own basic ludicrousness with the occasional wink and/or nod.

So when a throwback like 'Dredd' comes along, a movie that is unapologetic in its violence and committed to its premise with a very old-school sensibility, and presents itself without the least hint of irony, the back-to-the-basics approach leads to an even more effective sense of self-satire and a surprising amount of humor.

'Dredd' is set in an ambiguously post-apocalyptic future. The world's population lives exclusively in mega-cities, gigantic urban areas dominated by massive 'blocks' huge structures housing upwards of 75,000 people. The circumstances have led to the development of a brutal and overreaching law enforcement organization. These men and women known as judges are a militaristic police force that serves as jury and executioner as well.

Dredd (Karl Urban, 'Priest') is one of the best of the judges. He finds himself assigned to evaluate a rookie judge named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, 'The Darkest Hour'), a borderline case who just happens to be psychic. The two answer a call to one of the blocks in their district and find themselves investigating a drug-related revenge killing.

Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, TV's 'Game of Thrones') is the gang leader who controls the Peach Trees block. She is also the sole manufacturer of 'slo-mo,' a highly addictive narcotic that causes the user to experience time's passage at 1 percent normal speed. When Dredd and Anderson take one of her higher-ups prisoner, she decides she can't risk allowing him to be interrogated. So she takes over the building's network, closes it off from the outside and informs all 200 floors of the block that she wants the judges dead.

Then it's bullets and explosions. Lots and lots of bullets and explosions.

It's no surprise that Hollywood revisited the Judge Dredd character. Frankly, the only real question is what took them so long. The original comic book was a wonderfully dark satire of the future potential of fascism; Judge Dredd was supposed to represent the ultimate in faceless governmental enforcement. He never even took off his helmet.

So of course they made it into a Sylvester Stallone movie.

This 'Dredd' is far superior. Instead of the jokiness and, well, Stallone-iness of the 1995 version (Rob Schneider? Really?), we get a real shoot-em-up with a liberal dose of deadpan humor. Urban manages to be wonderfully expressive despite having his face mostly covered; expressive without expressions, if that make sense. Thirlby's Anderson is in the unenviable position of having to emote for the both of them, but she does an admirable job. Headey imbues Ma-Ma with a sincere instability that infuses realism into a role that could have been over-the-top and two-dimensional.

Having a slow-motion drug as a major plot point opens a lot of doors for the effects team. If you've ever wanted to see a bullet slowly pass through someone's face or get a better sense of the concussive effects of explosions on evil gang members, then boy oh boy, does 'Dredd' have something for you.

Sci-fi action can be hit or miss (we're looking at you, any movie with Taylor Kitsch in it), but 'Dredd' is a fairly solid hit. It manages to take itself so seriously that it doesn't take itself seriously. It's no easy task, and it makes the movie a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

4 out of 5

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