Judge Dredd is a character that has been around since 1977. Created for the second issue of a comic magazine called 2000 AD, he inhabits a post-apocalyptic world of mega-cities - large urban areas that are islands of civilization among a desolated Earth. The location of most of his adventures early on was Mega-City One, which encompassed a good portion of the east coast of the United States, including cities like Boston and New York. The character was created by writer John Wagner, and the visual element by artist Carlos Ezquerra, and was from the start highly influenced by the movie Dirty Harry.
The law enforcement in the Mega-Cities is done by Judges, who serve as a paramilitary police force with judicial powers, allowed to pass judgment and sentencing, up to the death penalty, on the spot. They are armed with a number of futuristic weapons but, even so, the criminals in Mega-City One outnumber the Judges, and are often more well-armed. Over the years he has served Mega-City One and had adventures in other parts of the world, with the character aging in real time (the action typically takes place about 125 years in the future). The comic has had numerous writers in addition to Wagner and, since 1990, has also had its own offshoot magazine. A number of the stories from 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Magazine have been published in their own collections. Though largely a cult phenomenon in the United States, the character has been a major cultural touchstone in the UK, and a means to satirize both U.S. and UK politics, throughout most of its run.
It was inevitable that at some point a movie would be made, but there were problems. One was that it would take a major studio to do justice to the world Dredd lives in, and in the 1990s the amount of money needed meant that it necessarily had to be an American production. That meant a major risk, due to Dredd not being a widely known character, and the fact that certain things would have to be compromised. One major change was the reveal of his face; in the comic, even when Dredd removes his helmet, his face is never seen. Sylvester Stallone, who played him in 1995's Judge Dredd, was not about to put his ego aside and go the whole film half-obscured by a helmet. Judge Dredd was also more of a typical 1990s sci-fi action flick.
Writer Alex Garland decided to take a crack at bringing Dredd back to the big screen, and that resulted in 2012's Dredd, directed by Pete Travis. It was scaled back to a straightforward action film, concentrating on bringing both Mega-City One to life and portraying Dredd the way he was in the comics, along with sly, dry humor mixed in amongst all the action. Though the movie was initially a failure in theaters, it gained a cult following over the years, albeit too late to complete any of the hoped-for sequels.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is teamed with cadet Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) in order to assess her fitness to be a Judge. Anderson is a mutant, which in her manifests as psychic abilities. The Hall of Justice finds that beneficial if she can function in the position. During the assessment a call comes in for a triple homicide at the Peach Trees housing complex, a building controlled by a gang headed by a woman known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) that is dealing a new narcotic called Slo-Mo, which makes the brain feel like time is slowing down.
In the course of the investigation Dredd and Anderson take one of her soldiers, Kay (Wood Harris) into custody, resulting in Ma-Ma locking down the complex so the Judges can't escape and no backup can enter. The two must face an army of gang members as their ammunition, and their options, diminish.
I had forgotten how violent this film was, and it is probably the artful direction of the Slo-Mo scenes and the vividness of some of the blood effects that kept this from having to be released unrated or cut to shreds to get an R rating. I'm already sure it was heavily cut to begin with, but even so it is one of the more outright violent Hollywood films I have seen in a long time. It not only glorifies it, but often times makes it look beautiful in the way that it is shot, particularly a gun fight seen from the perspective of a bunch of junkies on Slo-Mo.
The budget on this precluded doing a lot of fancy CGI work, which for me makes this version of Mega-City One more believable. The technology, though 125 years ahead of ours, has not developed so far that it is unrecognizable. In fact, much of it seems to have stagnated or been reinvented, as at some point a major atomic conflagration was to have occurred which made most of the Earth unlivable. While one of the things Judge Dredd may have got right was the city and the more advanced technology, Dredd gives us a recognizable urban sprawl that feels much more realistic. A good portion of the cityscape is Johannesburg, augmented with the large self-contained housing blocks that make up much of Mega-City One.
It is pretty much expected that someone seeing the film is at least passingly familiar with Judge Dredd, so Karl Urban doesn't get stuck doing any major development with the character, but instead just plays him in the stiff, single-minded way he is portrayed in the comics. That means the helmet stays on, and his devotion to the letter of the law is unwavering. Olivia Thirlby is given the rookie role, emphasizing some of her vulnerability due to being a female Judge, but wisely avoiding any relationship between her and Dredd other than a professional one. Lena Headey is deadly frightening as Ma-Ma, frequently handling many of the bloodiest and most violent punishments herself to keep her soldiers in line.
Dredd came out a year after The Raid: Redemption, and unfortunately suffered some comparison, as both of them deal with police officers trying to survive an onslaught of gang members led by a major drug dealer while trapped in a high-rise block. Despite similar surroundings, both movies are quite different, with Garland's script being done and in production before The Raid: Redemption was released. The circumstances in both, and the type of action presented, are completely different and, if just looking at plot, Dredd is the superior of the two even if the martial arts action in the other surpasses and hand-to-hand combat in this film.
I find Dredd to be superior to the 1995 movie in every way, even though I am probably one of the few people that liked Judge Dredd, largely because I thought it was hilariously campy and that Sylvester Stallone was still channeling John Spartan from Demolition Man. Still, I would much rather sit back and watch this one, as the world building is much more satisfying (and, like all good world building, lets most of it occur in the background instead of over-explaining) and Dredd, when not put through the Hollywood wringer, is a much more interesting character. There is a complexity hiding behind both the helmet and the exterior, as well as a dry humor that manifests itself at times. It is unfortunate that we may have to wait for the character to be rebooted again to revisit this world.
Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
Director: Pete Travis