Recalling the infamous earlier effort to bring the UK-originating Judge Dredd comic to the screen in a Hollywoodized 1995 vehicle starring Sylvester Stallone, it’s obvious the character was being severely undercut. Somehow, the image of Stallone in a ridiculous codpiece, hands on hips heroically, with Alan Silvestri’s blaring, triumphant score in the background, didn’t exactly capture the essence of what makes the character so great. Fans were naturally repulsed, and the character regressed back into obscurity in the US for nearly two decades.
Now, the 2000 A.D.-birthed Judge is back to the big screen, and this time fans finally have a product they can be proud of. Dredd, directed by Pete Travis from a script by Alex Garland is a far more faithful adaptation that just grazes the bar, saluting fans the entire way up.
After a nuclear war leaves the world a wasteland, all that’s left of society are Mega Cities, clusters of massive several-story buildings called blocks in which citizens live. These mini-neighborhoods of Mega City-1 are protected by the judges, who enforce absolute law as their namesake, jury, and executioner. One of their star officials is Dredd (Karl Urban), who is given the assignment of taking rookie judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) into the field for evaluation and assessment of her own set of unusual abilities. But when the pair investigate a multiple homicide at the Peach Trees block, led by the ruthless Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who is herself introducing a new drug called slo-mo to the streets, Dredd and the new recruit must infiltrate the block and send the message that laws are NOT made to be broken.
Dredd takes places almost entirely in the Peach Trees block, a smart move in keeping the budget down, but perhaps a bit limiting in scope. The film aches to have a broader canvas to work from, panning out to exteriors of the city whenever it can spare to. What it does do with its design is hit-and-miss; while the costumes look outstanding, I found myself wishing for a bit more in the way of colorful cyberpunk flair from its cityscapes and citizens. Still, color isn’t exactly fitting for such a gritty venture. Indeed, this is Dirty Harry for the genre crowd, and Karl Urban does a rather remarkable job at channeling his inner Clint Eastwood for the character of Dredd. It’s not easy to emote without using the upper half of your face, but Urban’s got the chops to pull it off, capturing the essence of the Judge in every frame.
But clever cinematography is the real star of the film; for one, Dredd’s 3D presentation commands the third dimension, providing a slick sensory experience without being invasive. Added with some equally clever use of slow motion, naturally used in sequences when the slo-mo drug is used, we get some surprisingly engaging visuals. People are thrown through windows with glass slowly sprinkling beyond the frame, water droplets course through the air…we even get a point-of-view shot of a man making the slow, slow decent from the 75th floor of the block down to the pavement below. It’s a movie born and raised in the added dimension and all the better for it.
Alex Garland’s script is solid enough, reproducing writer Matt Wagner’s Dredd universe to the letter. This is a gritty police state, a world where Dirty Harry’s methods are welcomed, nay required, to be a judge. Yet already too often I’ve come across reviews from critics questioning the film’s politics. They’re missing the point – Dredd, like its comic counterpart, isn’t making an argument for or against its hero’s methods. Indeed, the great thing about Judge Dredd comics is that they explore both sides; sure, the judges hit crime where it hurts and keep the city relatively safe without wasting everyone’s time in a lengthy judiciary process, but other stories portray the judges as the villains, terrorizing young children of the city and unjustly enforcing their own, often corrupt definition of the law (the film even includes a number of such judges as antagonists for Dredd). It’s the same controversy Dirty Harry experienced, and like that film, Dredd is about cheering on a hero that deals out absolute justice and puts the bad guys in their place, right or wrong for it. Besides, does anyone really, truly go to see a film like this for its ethics?
All the same, Dredd suffers from being far too cut-and-dry. Its linear storyline leaves for very little in the way of intimacy or gray area of any kind. My attention did admittedly waver frequently because of this, not because there isn’t much to the film (there is), it’s just not an especially complex or challenging experience. It’s also resolved far too quickly in the end. With such a short run time and a narrative lacking real beef, it seems as if the filmmakers are too afraid to deviate even the slightest bit from the source material or do anything other than play it completely, absolutely close to home. Not exactly the boldest approach, but diehard fans will undoubtedly be satisfied.
The double-edged sword of simplicity Dredd wields can be traced back to the character’s earliest appearances in the pages of 2000 A.D., which basically equate to setting up a scenario where a group of gang members are, for example, spray-painting a wall in the city. Judge Dredd will roll by in his motorcycle, and they’ll yell something like, “Hey Judge! You suck!” Dredd will get off his motorcycle and nonchalantly slap them with a lifetime sentence on a prison planet. “You can’t do this to me!” says the leader. “Yes I can…I am the law.” replies Dredd. As the gang members scream at eternity in their new confines, the narrator thrills to the continuing adventures of its protagonist as Dredd speeds away looking for more trivial crimes to overreact to. It’s silly, but that’s Dredd.
Dredd has already been quickly forgotten by a largely indifferent populace, so I suppose any talk of a sequel will be moot. For what it’s worth, I’d like to see what the same team could do with a bigger budget and a grander scale to work from, being able to explore beyond the blocks of Mega City-1. As it stands, Dredd is a simple, solid, quick-and-dirty actioner aimed squarely at pleasing fans of the comic. Sure, it doesn’t really go the extra mile to stand out amidst the pantheon of other comic book adaptations out there these days, but hey, if the fans enjoy it, who am I to judge?