Comic book supercop Judge Dredd has never been a character whose city defines him. He was created to be far more enigmatic than that, a hard-line law enforcer whose embodiment of a faceless future justice system is perfectly symbolized by the visored biker helmet he always wears. That said, his exploits as one-man judge, jury, and executioner have been very much defined by Mega-City One, a post-apocalyptic urban crush of 800 million (said to incorporate Boston, lucky us). In the British-published cult comics, it’s a loopily rendered, punk-subversive badland whose out-there inhabitants are as big a draw as the hero. “RoboCop” always felt like it owed those stories a debt.
Hollywood’s first stab at capturing all of this straight on was Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 “Judge Dredd,” a dopey, noisy mess of a movie that read “subversive” to mean tossing in Rob Schneider. Now comes “Dredd,” starring genre-credible Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise). Pretty clearly determined to deliver the antidote to Stallone’s movie, the filmmakers take their cues from Christopher Nolan’s Batman filmscape, dropping Dredd into a fictional concrete sprawl (actually South Africa) that’s relentlessly grounded, visually and dramatically. In a generic way, the environment works. But it drains the material of what should be most unique about it, and leaves Urban twisting despite a tightly coiled performance. (Unlike Stallone, who could barely be bothered with the helmet, Urban never takes it off.)
The story dispatches Dredd and his rookie partner, psychically gifted Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), to a 200-story tenement ruled by scarred, meth-toothed drug queenpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones”). The crack she’s pushing makes time seem like it’s passing at a micro-fraction of normal speed, and director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point”) mines this device for some of the geek-cleverest slo-mo since “The Matrix.” We get mesmerizingly grisly 3-D looks at bullets shredding facial flesh, among other impossibly drawn-out images of punks meeting their doom. If only the villainy or the tone here were half as crazy. Not every dystopian comic book movie needs to play like “The Dark Knight Rises” these days. A bit of “RoboCop” screwiness would be OK, too.