After Sylvester Stallone’s disastrous time under the helmet (or lack thereof) in 1995’s Judge Dredd, you’d think that any more attempts to realise the varied, cult worlds of British sci-fi comic 2000AD would be virtually impossible to get off the ground. Well, you’d be right as it took a staggering 17 years for anyone to give even their helmeted, lantern-jawed figurehead a second shot, but in 2012 DNA films, armed with a script by Alex Garland, took a chance on the famously grimacing lawman.
What we got, either by luck or design, is exactly what you’d get if you took the exit wound sized satirical sarcasm of Paul Verhoven’s Robocop and piledrived it into the virtually identical plot of Gareth Edward’s peerless bone breaker, The Raid. The result may be the lesser offspring of the coupling of said movies but it’s also a high concept sci-fi movie with retina searing imagery and enough grit to sand down a highway…
The year is… the future, America is predictably a burnt out, radioactive waste land and the remaining population is crammed into Mega City One – an endless urban metropolis littered with huge tower blocks where people live literally stacked on top of one another. Needless to say, crime is rididulously rife and the only way the massive crime figures can even hope to be addressed (only about 6%) is the Judges, peace officers with the licence to maintain the incredibly harsh sentencing by acting as judge, jury and executioner all in one. This brings us to Mega City One’s finest, a take no shit, straight arrow known as Judge Dredd who enforces the law with an iron fist and never removes his helmet in public (take THAT Mandalorian…) who is taking rookie Judge and mutant psychic Anderson out for a potentially lethal on the job assessment (that’s stressful enough even without the very real fact that she could quite easily get shot while out there). Investigating a case of execution-style murders in a particularly notorious block known as Peach Trees, the two run into cold blooded crime boss Ma-Ma who is responsible for the distribution of a new super hallucinogen called Slo-Mo and manages to seal of the entire building to avoid her secrets getting out. Putting a bounty on the heads of Dredd and Anderson, Ma-Ma turns an entire city block into a murderous mob and the two Judges have to try and survive as long as they can by fighting floor by floor until they reach their target.
While you could hardly describe Dredd as an exercise in originality, it has a ferocious visual panache and a dedication to making everything real and tactile that makes it stand out as a memorable viseral experience. Instead of creating a science-fiction-y, completely fabricated world made up entirely of CGI and grungy sets, the staggeringly oppressive skylines of Mega City One are portrayed by the digitally altered (but only slightly) city scapes of Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa – surely not exactly a boon for the tourism board.
Also treading that oh-so-fine line of comic book cool and hard edged realism is the look of Dredd itself with the Judge’s iconic uniform remodeled into a design based on french riot police which honors the material exquisitely but it would all mean nothing if the casting was off…
Step up and take a bow Karl Urban, the ubiquitous aussie actor whose genre credentials are as impeccable as Dredd’s arrest record and who notched up yet another comic book role with effortless ease making the main character believable despite the fact that he’s a stone cold fascist bastard. Olivia Thirlby beings the right balance of vulnerability and burgeoning toughness as Judge wannabe Anderson and Game Or Thones’ Lena Headey (another genre stalwart) has sneery fun and is clearly relishing playing “ugly” as the scar-faced Ma-Ma while sporting a set of chompers that resemble a ripped out fireplace.
The visual style of the movie is stunning with the scenes of people drugging themselves on “Slo-Mo” standing out as the drug slows down time for the user exponentially and therefore allows the film to take on a dreamy, almost anime feel before giving way to the grainy “real world”. It’s relentlessly beautiful and makes fantastic use of the 3D the movie was filmed in (a rare standout in the glut of 3D transfers released at the time).
However, some of fhe action scenes, despite being impressively viseral but between the odd exploding head, someone getting a high velocity root canal and Ma-Ma leveling a couple of floors with the sort of firepower you’d usually reserve for an invading army, are missing a sense of pop, relying too much on bland, repetitive shooting but scenes where Dredd outwits and out manoeuvres his foes are far more fun in a glib, cold hearted sort of way. We’ve all seen the usual “blam-blam” kind of action before (and done much better in films like John Wick) but shooting a man in the mouth with a flare gun style “hotshot” round is something only Dredd can claim.
Admittedly flawed yet positively brimming with promise the movie regrettably never got the sequel it so richly deserved (the fact we got 6 Resident Evil movies but no Dredd 2 proves that we are truly are living in the darkest timeline) and at the time of writing a vaguely rumoured TV show has still yet to surface which marks Dredd out as possibly one of the most mistakenly undervalued genre movies in recent history (are we staying we DON’T want to see the Dark Judges on film?).
We may never get a 2000AD Cinematic Universe where the likes of Rogue Trooper, ABC Warriors and Nemesis The Warlock can stand tall along side the casts of Marvel and DC (fuck, I’d pay hand over fist for an adaption of Ace Garp Trucking Co.) but for a brief, shining moment we had a supremely badass Dredd movie that hit all the right notes – a film that does comics most notorious lawman… justice.