director Pete Travis
viewed: 09/22/2012 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA
In 1983, I was 13-14 and I collected comics. I remember being in a comic shop in Gainesville, Florida called The Time Machine and overhearing the staff commenting on the release of a new comic, “Oh, I like Judge Dredd. He kills people.” Interest piqued, I picked up issue #1 of the Eagle Comics reprints of the British sci-fi supercop, and before I’d even finished reading it, I was totally hooked, in no small part to the brilliant art of Brian Bolland and the sardonic future world of Mega City One and Judge Dredd.
As a teen’s life turns to other things, Judge Dredd was one of the last titles that I kept picking up before my money, time, and interest filled with music and girls.
It’s been years since I have read the comics but they still figure prominently in my mind. So, back in 1995, when the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd came out, I skipped it. No explanation should be necessary. And yet, when a new take on the character was tapped, I harbored hopes that maybe this time we’d see a film that more successfully captured the comic.
Dredd, as the tersely titled new film is called, re-boots with Alex Garland (28 Days Later… (2002), Sunshine (2007), etc.) writing the script and Karl Urban (who?) filling the boots and helmet. One (of many) of the things that perturbed fans in the Stallone debacle was that Dredd’s face is never seen above the upper lip, encased always in the stylized helmet of the judges, but Stallone spent much screen time with his helmet off. Urban keeps his on and does a very good job with what little range the character allows. He’s quite a fine Judge Dredd, in that sense.
The world of Dredd is a fantasy nightmare of the Cold War era. It’s a post-nuclear apocalypse, in which only three “Mega-cities” have survived, while the whole outer world is “The Cursed Earth”, inhabited by a variety of mutants and nutjobs, straight out of Mad Max (1979). This is the thing about Judge Dredd. First published in 1977, the character channelled a Dirty Harry (1971) fascist police mentality, and as others have noted, took it to its logical extreme, whose perfect place was a godforsaken future. The judges are the police force, but they are literally, judge, jury, and executioner, meting out cold, hard justice in a myriad of body bags. And Judge Dredd, who also springs somewhat from Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”, is the toughest of the cops, but with a limited, not-really-pertinent-in-all-cases back-story. He “is The Law”. That’s all you need to know.
It’s no longer The Cold War, so the social criticism that invested the comics has probably become dated. So, more than anything, Garland stripped this down, big time, creating a fairly lean, action-filled story in which Dredd is paired with a rookie psychic cop, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), one of the core set of characters from the comics. And what they end up going up against is remarkably similar to the Indonesian action film, The Raid: Redemption (2011), in which they enter a towering slum and are locked in a battle with the drug dealer that controls the building, having to fight off just about everybody that lives there. Since Dredd doesn’t really do martial arts, this is a gun-shooting frenzy, with copious digital blood splattering, bodies piling up, and occasional grotesqueries of squished heads earn its R-rating.
The British production was filmed in South Africa and it has the feel of a less mainstream product. The effects are quite good (I forwent the 3-D, as I am wont to do), especially the sequences shot when people take the opiate Slo-Mo, in which everything goes…slow motion. It’s not low-budget but it’s not the same quality of effects you see in, say, The Avengers (2012), but it’s rigorous and entertaining.
For me, the real let-down (though anticipated) was the lack of the comic social criticism of the comic. Not every story featured it, but Mega-City was defined by its pure over-the-topness. Gangs were all punk and way out of their heads, but the general populace was filled with all kinds of kooks and weirdos too. I don’t know how ironic the vigilant iron fist of “The Law” was originally, but I always read it as both a fascist fantasy and comic brutality. Garland’s script toes the more traditional “action hero” line with occasional quips rather than wacky weirdness.
The film is surprisingly decent. Supposedly, if it makes enough money, there are two sequels planned, the final one picking up the best of the Judge Dredd storylines, the one including Judge Death. I hope it comes about and I hope they get to loosen it up a bit more. I’m driven to dig out my comics and re-acquaint myself with the originals, so my opinion will be better informed if it comes around again, but I’d like to see it. I’d like to see it done well.