Judge Dredd is one of the most popular and most iconic characters in the history of comic books, but to American audiences, many only know the character from the abysmal 1995 film Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone.
That film resembled then 18 year old property as much as Stallone resembles a plain spoken Shakespearean actor. If you are willing to give the character another chance, and no one can blame you if that first film scared you off Judge Dredd forever, you’ll find a much better interpretation of the source material in Dredd 3D.
The film takes place in a nuclear war ravaged future United States. The survivors huddle into massive “Mega Cities” patrolled by a new breed of cop called Judges. They act as judge, jury and, very often, executioners in the line of duty.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) patrols Mega City One, one continuous city that stretches from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. and contains 200-story “tower blocks” that house tens of thousands of residents. The film follows Dredd on a day at work, doing an on-the-job assessment of a rookie Judge by the name of Cassandra Anderson (Oliva Thirlby) who has telepathic abilities (her family lived too close to the nuclear fallout–her parents got cancer, she got superpowers).
As luck would have it, her first day on the job goes horrifically wrong. Dredd and Anderson run afoul of drug lord by the name of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) while investigating a grisly murder in a the tower block under her control. The main suspect in the slaying, Kay (Wood Harris, yet another alum of The Wire in a comic book film), is someone with vital information regarding Ma-Ma’s manufacture of a popular, perception-slowing drug called Slo-Mo. To prevent Dredd and Anderson from leaving the building with Kay and the information he holds, Ma-Ma seals the building and tries to kill Dredd and Anderson in the most violent ways possible.
The film scrapes of the glitz of the original film and constructs a gritty, gory and extremely violent film that is closer in tone to the original source material. Its tone is also is close into to other dystopian future epics such as Robocop and Escape From New York (at several times, Dredd’s score was very reminiscent of the latter’s). The film builds a similar plausible, yet satiric world to those two movies, one which adds character to the piece.
Urban does an excellent job as Dredd. The character is a cipher–we never know anything about his family life or his personal history, and Urban wears the Dredd helmet at all times (which automatically makes this film an improvement of the 1995 version). Yet, Urban, director Pete Travis, and screenwriter Alex Garland create an interesting character with many internal conflicts and distinct personality. Dredd is never one note, and the character keeps the audience interested from beginning to end. That’s a credit to Urban’s skill.
The rest of the cast is just as good, especially Thirlby as Anderson and Headey as the menacing Ma-Ma.
The film does have a satiric point of view, aimed at political themes (the relative benefits and draw backs of a police state) but also satirizes cop movie conventions. Yes, Anderson will get captured by the bad guys. Yes, there will be bad Judges for Dredd to fight. But this is all presented with humorous and unexpected twists.
For me, the best part of the film is respect the filmmakers have for the source material. While the story line was not adapted from any particular comic book arc, it was the perfect Judge Dredd story. Best of all, the first credit in the end credits, on screen larger than life and in as big a font as the director or any actor, was “Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.” In a day where crediting creators in film featuring their characters is a controversial undertaking, it was refreshing to see Dredd’s creators honored in such a fashion.
Fair warning–the film is graphically, brutally violent. It uses its R rating to the fullest advantage. So much so, that at times you will wonder how the film didn’t get an NC-17 rating. This is a comic book film for adults, not one to bring your 8-year-old nephew to see.
Also, I saw the film in 2D, not 3D, so I cannot speak to the quality of the effects in that aspect. However, I never felt I was missing something by not seeing it in 3D.
It wasn’t hard for Dredd to be better than Judge Dredd. But the film went above and beyond that easily reached goal. It is a faithful comic book adaptation that will please the fans of the character, and it’s a bleak, futuristic sci-fi action film that ranks right up there with the best of the genre. It definitely deserves a better audience than it likely will get.