The character of Judge Dredd first appeared in the March 1977 issue of British science fiction-themed comic book 2000 AD and was created by writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra and editor Pat Mills. Set in the dystopian futureworld of Mega-City One, Dredd is a Dirty Harry-esque law enforcement officer in the sense that he uses extreme, often violent methods to serve justice. Crime in this world is so bad that he and his fellow judges have been bestowed by the powers that be with the ability to arrest, convict, sentence, and execute criminals.
Dredd proved to be so popular that in 1990 he got his own title, Judge Dredd Magazine. It made sense that eventually the character would make the jump to film as his world was rife with cinematic possibilities. Aspects of the comic book would pop up in films like RoboCop (1987) but it wasn’t until Hollywood tried to officially adapt it with Sylvester Stallone as Dredd. While I don’t have a problem with him as the character per se, the screenplay failed to carry over the comic book’s ironic humor and instead replaced it with Rob Schneider’s goofy sidekick. This version also transgressed important “Dredd mythology” by having the titular lawman remove his helmet (something he rarely does in the comic book) and developed a love interest between him and Judge Hershey – something that is forbidden between Judges in the source material.
Judge Dredd (1995) was trashed by critics and fans. Another cinematic adaptation was attempted until 2012 with Dredd. Produced by British studio DNA Films, it was directed by Pete Travis (Omagh) and written and produced by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). While still omitting the comic book’s ironic humor, they created a much more faithful representation of Dredd and his world with a gritty, violent take that resulted in lackluster box office returns. Strong word of mouth saw it perform better on home video where it has acquired a cult following.
After a succinct introduction to this world via a montage of footage and Dredd’s (Karl Urban) voiceover narration giving us the important details, we are dropped right in the middle of the action as the Judge pursues three junkies through the streets in an exciting chase sequence that culminates in a showdown where he efficiently executes the lone remaining criminal.
Once returning to headquarters, he’s assigned a rookie judge by the name of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who has powerful psychic abilities but has failed to get a passing grade in the academy. This is her last chance and she has to prove herself out in the field. They answer a call at the Peach Trees project where three men were tortured and dropped to their deaths by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute now ruthless drug lord of the building. She pushes a drug known as Slo-Mo that gives you a high and creates the illusion that time is slowing down.
Dredd and Anderson arrive, assess the situation and investigate. They soon arrest a key member of Ma-Ma’s gang, which doesn’t sit too well with her and so she takes control of the building’s systems, locking it down thereby trapping the Judges inside. Cut off from HQ, they decide to work their way up the 200-story building and take down Ma-Ma and her gang. The rest of Dredd plays out like a suspenseful cat and mouse game punctuated by hard-hitting action sequences.
Dredd is a refreshingly stripped-down, no frills action film that tells us only what we need to know and doesn’t provide unnecessary backstories to our protagonists, which forces us to take them as they are, letting their actions provide insight into them. This may have also led to its commercial demise as the narrative refused to hold the audience’s hand and also refused to make Dredd a sympathetic character. In that respect, Judge Anderson serves that purpose.
She’s the rookie and our window into this world. She’s thrown into an impossible situation where its sink or swim, life or death – in other words, a very steep on-the-job learning curve. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) does a nice job of being the audience surrogate, providing an emotional touchstone, which acts in sharp contrast to Karl Urban’s no-nonsense Dredd. While Anderson doesn’t have the battle-hardened physicality of Dredd, she is able to read people’s minds and this is her distinct advantage. This is evident in the fascinating scene where she uses her psychic power to interrogate one of Ma-Ma’s gang. At first, he thinks that he’s got the upper hand but Anderson quickly reveals that she knows what she’s doing and turns the tables on him.
Dependable character actor Karl Urban (Star Trek) is perfectly cast as Dredd, giving a minimalist, Clint Eastwood-esque performance. In the first ten minutes, he manages to top Stallone’s cartoonish portrayal. The actor obviously did his homework, nailing Dredd’s humorless demeanor while still uttering a few choice one-liners that are amusing thanks to his deadpan delivery. Urban is also adept at making the film’s future-speak with words like “Iso-cube” sound natural – something that isn’t always to pull off. He also has the challenge of acting with three quarters of his head encased in a helmet for the entire film and yet is still able to exude toughness with a defiant sneer that looks like something Carlos Ezquerra would have drawn.
Versatile character actress Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) is impressive as the vicious drug lord Ma-Ma. She dives into the role without a hint of vanity as she messes up her natural beauty with a large scar on her face, bad teeth and disheveled appearance. She is able to exude lethal malevolence while being surrounded by bigger, tougher men by the way she carries herself. Ma-Ma doesn’t care whether she lives or dies and rules her gang with an iron fist.
Pete Travis bathes the entire film in a sickly grungy look as Dredd and Anderson work their way through a slum project. It suits the grim outlook of this futureworld. He and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) keep things visually interesting with the Slo-Mo hallucination sequences, which are vibrant and trippy riffs on the slow motion action scenes in The Matrix movies only druggier.
If there is any fault with Dredd it’s that the filmmakers overcompensate for the glib tone of Judge Dredd by going a bit too far in the other direction. In doing so, the film loses some of the satirical tone of the comic book. Fortunately, this is only a minor quibble because the filmmakers get so much right, creating a very faithful adaptation by learning from the mistakes of the previous attempt. Unfortunately, more moviegoers didn’t feel the same way and Dredd was a commercial failure but it lives on in home video, treasured by those that finally saw their favorite lawman be given his proper due. Justice has been served.