The appeal of a popular property from another medium can be murdered in a movie version if the adaptation doesn’t work.  This is doubly true for comic books.  A classic example is Howard The Duck: the comic book was an inspired, oft subversive work of satire but the film adaptation was an ill-conceived popcorn movie that spoiled the character for most viewers before anyone knew what it was supposed to be.

A similarly catastrophic case was Judge Dredd.  The character, as introduced in the cult fave U.K. comic book 2000 A.D., was essentially Dirty Harry with the firepower of Robocop and even more narrow interpretation of the law.  In short, a perfect character for an action movie.  By the time Hollywood tackled the character in a belated 1995 movie version, it was merely a bad Sylvester Stallone vehicle complete with a bloated budget, annoying comic relief and all the satirical and subversive elements sanded off in favor of campy popcorn movie fluff.  Some viewers have a fondness for its dim-witted camp value but most fans of the comic book hate it (and rightly so).

Thankfully, the character has been revived for a new screen treatment entitled Dredd 3D – and this time, the adaptation is on the money.  The new adaptation sticks to the grit of the original comic: it takes place in a post-nuclear war future where a series of Mega-Cities have risen from the rubble and are dogged by epic levels of crime.  The only thing keeping the Mega-Cities from collapsing into chaos is the presence of “Judges”: well-armed, high-tech lawmen who act as judge, jury and, if need be, executioner.  Dredd (Karl Urban) is one of the best, a by-the-book type who hunts and kills in Mega-City One with such skill he often seems like a robot.

As the film begins, Dredd is assigned to work with Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a Judge trainee on the verge of failing.  However, she is kept on because she is a mutant with strong psychic abilities.  Dredd is assigned to evaluate her performance for one last tryout.  As fate would have it, the test becomes  a big one when they square off with drug dealers in a high-rise slub controlled by Ma Ma (Lena Headey).  When it seems they might take one of her men in for questioning, she has the building sealed off and orders her dozens of men to hunt down Dredd and Anderson.  Cue the explosions and gun-battles, all suffused with a heavy dose of cyberpunk cynicism.

Dredd 3D is a tremendously effective piece of work because it puts all its energy into being tight and focused.  Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland handled the scripting duties here and his story goes for a beautiful minimalism: he keeps the scale intimate, the tension high and maintains the bleak, cynical tone of the source material nicely.  He doesn’t push the satire as far as the comic book did but retains a dark humor that blends nicely into the action-driven storyline.

Garland also makes a smart choice by using Dredd’s evaluation of a very different partner as the story’s dramatic core rather than setting up some big, contrived moments of love or self-discovery.  No one has time for melodrama in this world and the small clashes of will and moments of mutual respect that pile up between Dredd and Anderson register nicely because they are never forced – and both characters have to stare down an ever-present onslaught of death and doom to reach them.

This spartan approach extends to Pete Travis’s direction.  His visuals sell the grimy future of the storyline without going into fetishized overkill and his action scenes are staged and cut in a way that focuses on suspense more than flash.  Even his use of 3-D is subtle, focused on creating a sense of dimension and depth rather than non-stop ocular razzle-dazzle.  When he goes for a visual flourish, he makes sure it sticks: the big eye-candy moments here are some slow-motion visuals used to illustrate the effects of Slo Mo, a drug that makes the passage of time crawl to a minimum for its users.  A scene where the audience is given a Slo Mo user’s perspective during a gun battle, complete with a bullet ripping through the side of a face, is staggering stuff and a morbidly inspired use of 3-D technique.

Travis also gets surprisingly textured performances from his leads.  Urban’s approach to Dredd favors a Clint Eastwood-derived minimalism, using the Judge helmet and scowl as a mask as a Sphinx-like mask and selling the character’s shifts of mood through what he doesn’t do as opposed to what he does do.  Thirlby is better known for her work in indie dramas and comedies and brings that kind of subtlety to her work here, allowing us to see how her character gradually toughens while still working to keep a core of humanity.  Headey nicely underplays her villain role, giving Ma-Ma a lazy-lidded aloofness that suggests a seen-it-all weariness rather than campy overplaying.  Her numbness is much scarier than any ranting or raving could be.

In short, Dredd 3D is a killer slice of pulp futurism that is smarter and subtler than it is getting credit for being.  It’s great to see a mid-size genre movie with this kind of technique and smarts – and its moody take on the Judge Dredd character is a grimly beautiful antidote to past cinematic crimes against this character.