Lionsgate/DNA Films/IM Global/Reliance Entertainment
1995's Judge Dredd left a bad taste in filmgoer's mouths, even those unfamiliar with the comic book it was based on. At the time, I'd never read a Dredd comic, but I distinctly remember watching the film on home video and thinking nearly every facet of it was wrong - Rob Schneider's unbearable and incessant prattling, Armand Assante's near-legendary overacting, an obviously forced love story, and even Stallone's titular character, who lacked any sense of personality (beyond "typical action movie musclehead") even when playing a guy whose face is never shown in the comics.
For the better part of two decades, Judge Joseph Dredd remained a popular comic book character, but never got another crack at the big screen until writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) began writing a script for a proposed film in 2006.
Still Dredd's road to theaters wasn't easy. First announced in 2008, the movie would enter a four year long production phase on a comparatively shoestring budget - at least when compared to big Hollywood productions. With only $45 million to work with, it's a miracle such an ambitious project based on an established property got made at all. Dredd is something of an anomaly in today's moviescape; a champion of independent filmmaking techniques, but with a blockbuster aesthetic - a cornucopia of violence and testosterone that seems like summer movie fodder.
Yet, somehow - against all odds - it works.
Karl Urban, perhaps best known for playing Eomer in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King, stars as Dredd, a judge in Mega-City One. In the wake of an apocalyptic cataclysm, the Mega-Cities are the last haven for humans, while the wasteland beyond their borders, known as the Cursed Earth, lies irradiated and uninhabitable.
Like any sprawling megalopolis, Mega-City One is riddled with violent crime, poverty, pollution, and all manner of unpleasantness. The only order amongst the chaos are the Judges - high-tech police officers with authority to sentence and, if necessary, execute criminals on the spot.
Dredd's world is, arguably, the most fascinating thing about the property. There are many obvious villains, but fewer clearly defined heroes. The Judges are supposed to uphold the law, but when one person is given so much power, the temptation to abuse it or, worse, betray it grows exponentially.
Judge Joseph Dredd sees things in a very black and white, right and wrong, cut and dry manner, with no gray area. You either are a criminal, or you're not, even if you're a homeless but harmless junkie sitting outside one of the giant tenement buildings in Mega-City One. He is, for all intents and purposes, a fascist, yet the viewer is forced to root for him as the least vile character among the population of drug peddlers, murderers, rapists, cutthroats and thieves.
To his chagrin, Dredd is paired with Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie Judge he is required to assess for further assignment. Anderson's test scores render her ineligible, but Dredd's Captain urges him to give her another field test to put her powerful psychic abilities, a result of a genetic mutation, to good use.
While investigating three gruesome murders at Peach Trees, a humongous housing settlement that is practically a self-contained city block, they arrest a member of the vicious Ma-Ma's Gang. Fearful he will lead the Judges to her and discover her gang has been manufacturing and distributing Slo-Mo, a drug that slows down the user's perception of time, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) puts the entire complex on lock down and urges her crew to hunt and execute the Judges.
Dredd is a hyper-violent film, albeit a very stylish one. Unlike the dreadful Stallone version, there's little in the way of comic relief, save the occasional cool quip from Dredd after he dispatches a bad guy. In fact, there's really nothing in common with the 1995 film, and that's a very good thing. This incarnation of Dredd isn't a typical hero and, blessedly like his comic book counterpart, never shows his face. Judge Dredd is a faceless extension of the long arm of the law. He's less a man than an ideal, to borrow from V For Vendetta. All we know of him is that he takes his job with the utmost seriousness.
Don't expect much in the way of character exposition in Dredd. There's startingly little dialogue all around, and only when necessary. This keeps the pace steady and the focus on the ultra-violent action, for better or worse.
On the one hand, it would be nice to explore more of Dredd's world, but on the other, I feel like the filmmakers made the best possible film they could given their budget constraints and the relative obscurity of the character. Dredd may be popular in Europe, but compared to American comic book icons like Batman and Spider-Man, he's an unknown. The tragedy of Dredd is that, unlike other cult properties such as V For Vendetta and Watchmen, which were equally unheard of by the general public, the film was a box office bust, leaving the future of the franchise in doubt.
It's a shame, because while Dredd is certainly far from a perfect film, it's an enjoyable, if brainless, action romp. The effects are cool, and it nails the tone of the over-populated, crime-infested city and its inhabitants. Headey's Ma-Ma is one of the most despicable villains to appear on screen in a long time. I can't recall the last time I wanted to see a film's antagonist get flayed, or some other gruesome comeuppance, so badly.
I won't pretend there's any depth in Dredd. It's 95 minute running time means there's no fat, and any deeper meanings you take from it are conjured from your own extrapolation. It's true that Joseph Dredd is a character who is all shades of gray, in spite of how he views the world around him, but the film only scratches the surface of such things in a few brief scenes where Anderson sees things differently and acts accordingly. I suppose it could be said there's a subtle shift in Dredd by the time the film ends, but if a sequel ever gets made, don't expect him to be warm and cuddly or have a sudden crisis of conscience.
Whether the association with Stallone's awful film was the cause, competition from other summer films, or the public simply was apathetic, Dredd was a critical success, but a commercial failure. Hopefully it will earn a much-deserved second life on home video, because it accomplishes very well what it sets out to do, even if its goals aren't exactly lofty. If you can stomach the excessive violence, Dredd is a terrific thrill ride, perfect for those who want to kick back and enjoy the sights and sounds of a dystopian future without all the heady, philosophical themes in flops like Total Recall (2012). Let's just hope the filmmakers get a chance to explore the world further, and sooner rather than later.