For me, the comic (running in some form or another since 1977) is a fascinating take on police states, one man as judge/jury/executioner, and vigilantism (the latter two, I'd argue, being different things).
Gritty and uneven, the Dredd comics for me shared a common ancestry with the thematically and artistically "messy" work of people like James O'Barre (the man behind The Crow, later turned into it's own successful (first) film with the late Brandon Lee).
Dredd is an odd character. Not as in offbeat or cartoonish, but in compelling, high-caricature fashion. In some ways, he's a broken-mirror parallel to Marvel's Captain America -- Not "Bizarro Cap", but a man living in and empowered by a system, code, and framework for operating into which he's deeply, deeply bought, and it informs everything he does.
He's not like Marvel's Punisher, who in his best portrayals is a tortured soul dealing with the devastating loss of his wife and children -- and in his worst, he's a screw-lose psychopath with a penchant for arbitrary bloodletting. To be fair, there are some portrayals of the Frank Castle character -- like those by writer Matt Fraction -- that bring the character closer to Dredd's consistently monochromatic umbrella of "assess guilt and mete appropriate judgement".
(And by "monochromatic", I don't mean pejoratively. Think along the lines of a dog (who can allegedly see only in black and white), with the faculties of a human being, the rolled-up hyper training of S.W.A.T. soldier / beat cop / F.B.I. agent, the need to instantly sift through and separate black, white, and myriad shades of gray, and act on those differences.
The film is set almost entirely within a single mega-city -- a monstrous evolution of today's high-rise living buildings that can house seventy thousand people, multiple communities, crime syndicates, and environments. The challenge of successfully pulling off the movie equivalent of a video game "corridor shooter" is impressive.
But what strikes me as most impressive about Dredd are two things:
- Karl Urban is Judge Dredd
- The brilliant gimmicks that enable movie tropes
Let's face it -- Karl Urban's got chops. To try to dismiss his portrayal of an "emotionless character" as "easy" would be to both miss his range of play (just look at 2009's Star Trek), and the nuanced character of Dredd himself.
To be honest, that's what made the movie fun for me. Urban brilliantly portrays this tough, stoic character -- who never takes off his mask --and shows weight, diversity, humor, and even worldview growth through the course of the movie. And he does it only from the nose down.
(In the comics, Dredd's face was never shown -- the one time he did remove his helmet on-panel, a large "Censored" bar was placed in front of it.)
Secondly, from a guy from "The Biz" side of movie making and acting, I love the conceits that allow for movie tropes to play out, "organic-in-the-context-of-the-movie".
I don't want to give anything away, so all I'll say is the Slo-Mo drug as an excuse to do cinematic things like camera and composited slow-motion sequences, hero poses, and special FX, is just brilliant. Astoundingly so.
What I didn't see (and can't comment on) is the 3D aspect of the film -- I prefer the higher-resolution of 2D prints.
That said, this is a film I may see again for the 3D, which warrants some defense.
Like a lot of folks, if I see one more 3D filmic ax thrown at my head, I may run out the theater screaming obscenities.
But this film (besides the pretty VFX) might get 3D right.
My beef with 3D in movies and video games (aside from the gratuitous and arbitrary nature of its use), is the "outside-of-the-plane" implementation that causes such rigid viewing position, occasional headaches for sensitive people, and even sometimes eye-stabbing pain (thank you, Uncharted 3 multiplayer UI).
Well-done games (some on the Nintendo 3DS, for example), do 3D behind the plane -- "shadowbox" style. Dredd 3D (I hope) makes use of the perfect opportunity of the amped-up version of a skyscraper spiral staircase to leverage this particular implementation of 3D to interesting effect.
As far as franchise fans go, the film will treat you to the violence of the comic (though the gore side of that violence was surprisingly high for my expectations, and isn't necessarily required for violent films). You'll also get nuanced bits from the comic book series, like "dirty judges", the gang wars, and some nods to the then-futuristic tech depicted in the serials.
Which is the final thing I like about Dredd -- it's true to the source material. I expect (and want) IP to be different to adapt across different consumer mediums,but for broadest success, it should be true to the source. The Guardian's Phelim O'Neill maybe said it best when he commented on the film, in the context of complaining about other adaptations changed too much when moved to film: "In a world of compromised adaptations, Dredd is something of a triumph."