In the future, Judges are also cops and executioners rolled into one. The film starts with an obligatory cold open. Dredd is chasing some bad guys who are high on slo-mo, a drug which makes users perceive time at 1% of reality. The following isn't really a spoiler: Dredd sentences them all to death, the last of which is dispensed in one of the coolest movie deaths I've seen in years. Afterwards, Dredd is assigned a new partner, Judge Anderson, who failed her tests, but their superiors are interested in her because she demonstrates psychic abilities.
Dredd's job is to assess her throughout the day. If she passes his testing, she becomes a Judge. (I can't believe how tired this all sounds in writing, because it actually plays very well in the movie.) Their first day together on the beat involves fielding distress calls. Dredd tells her it's a fact of life that Judges can only respond to a fraction of the calls. He lets her choose which one they'll take. Anderson chooses a two-hundred story slum which just happens to house the distributor of slo-mo, an absolutely evil woman named Mama.
During the course of an investigation that involves three bodies (skinned alive) the Judges kill a few perps and make an arrest. As they're leaving, Mama hacks into the building's security system and closes the blast doors. There's no way to get in or out. Mama makes an announcement to the tenants of the building: she's not opening the doors until Dredd and Anderson are killed.
That's the entire movie. It doesn't sound like it's particularly fresh or entertaining, but I'll be damned if I didn't feel engaged throughout. The film is very well made and rarely offends your intelligence. I've rarely seen subject matter like this that's handled so tastefully. 1995's Judge Dredd was way too over-the-top in terms of performances and action. This film's keyed down and that's exactly where it belongs.
Which isn't to say there aren't missteps. When four Judges are revealed to be bounty hunters who'll kill Dredd for money, I felt the movie meandered. I'm not talking a total derailment, but I wondered why the filmmakers bothered. There's also a damsel-in-distress subplot that appears at an awkward time. Other than that, the movie escapes the usual standards by which I view movies. How? By simply being good—exceptionally good. It's a certain type of movie that's nearly gone extinct, but it's a fine and solid example thereof.
In the trailer, Olivia Thirlby (she was Juno's best friend) seems like a terrible choice for Judge Anderson. In the context of the movie, however, she's pretty good. In the 1995 production, the producers were too uptight to put Stallone in a movie in which he never shows his face; he spends more time with the helmet off than on. In this one, Karl Urban never takes the mask off. You could call his portrayal of Dredd monotone, but I gotta hand it to him: it's hard to be taken seriously when you're wearing a costume like his and speaking in a gravelly voice.
These movies are only as good as their villains and this film has a good one. It's cool to see a woman in a role like this. When Mama beats the shit out of a man twice her size, you believe it. When I saw the trailer, I thought that character above all would be my biggest complaint. Turns out it was my favorite aspect. As far as these comic adaptations go, this one is superb. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of the origins story. It's nice to see something start in the middle of the action. It's a simple film, sure, but there's an elegance and very few things explode.
I miss movies like this. In the nineties, you could market R-rated films to children (there used to be Alien, Predator, and Terminator action figures), but the era of the multiplex brought stricter parents and movie theaters that actually carded. It's a sad fact of life that Hollywood has pandered so much to children in recent years, who are now turning their backs on movies for video games and mobile technologies. Adults rarely have a good excuse to go see a movie, but Dredd's one of the better ones. As of this writing it hasn't recouped half of its modest budget. It's a shame, too, because I'd actually be interested in a sequel.
Note: I didn't link to the trailer because it's got more than one significant spoiler in it.