Hollywood takes another stab at bringing cult British comic book icon Judge Dredd to the big screen after the 1995 Sylvester Stallone production that played things so fast and loose to disastrous effect. Fans can rest easy this time around, as the grim and violent new version sticks very close to the letter of the law.
For those unfamiliar, Judge Dredd originates in the British comic magazine 2000 AD, he’s a relentless lawman waging a brutal war on crime in America’s primary post-apocalyptic urban jungle, Mega City One. Part of an elite police force granted the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner at any of the many and bizarre crime scenes throughout the horrendous metropolis, Dredd is the most feared and respected grunt on the force.
The film’s story, such that it is, involves Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie-but-psychic Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) being called out to a murder scene only to be locked in an impossibly large vertical slum block that has been taken over by a gang of vicious drug dealers. Outmanned, outgunned and outflanked, the two judges are forced to defend themselves against impossible odds in typical Dredd style – by being stone-cold badasses.
Where the comics are well known for the freewheeling creativity of their futuristic weirdness, the new film strips a lot of the whimsy away, preferring instead a blunt palette of violence, death and depravity (not that the comics lacked any of that, either). It’s not the bogglingly strange and idiosyncratic Mega City One we know and loathe, but it’s certainly just as nasty.
The film wastes little time in reassuring fans they’ve come to the right place. By the time the opening chase scene is concluded we’ve already seen mind-altering future-drug abuse, innocent bystanders smeared across windshields, and witnessed a man’s brain boil inside his collapsing skull. Yes, OK, good, someone actually glanced at the comics this time. And that’s just a sample of the over-the-top carnage and crushingly choreographed police brutality the audience has signed up for in the next 90 minutes.
It’s funny the filmmakers have opted to axe ‘Judge’ from the title, because that’s really where the film’s emphasis lies. With it’s very contained, Die Hard-like premise, the script is largely an examination of the process of judging as Dredd leads Anderson through one of the most gruelling job trails of all time. There’s a few narrative flourishes here and there – like the gruesome back story of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), the stoic female drug kingpin, or the introduction of a gang of naughty corrupt judges (sorry Death fans, not that corrupt) – but by and large it’s just Dredd teaching Anderson how to kill as many people as possible without getting killed in return.
And there’s definitely nothing wrong with that, but in order for it all to hold up the responsibility falls on the shoulder of one man – is Karl Urban really Judge Dredd material? I admit I was a sceptic at first but by the close of business you’ll have almost forgotten he was once one of our beloved Shortland Street luminaries.
Urban fully embraces the minimal character, spitting each of his wry lines with terse economy and matching his menacing scowl with ruthlessly efficient physicality. Dredd doesn’t learn, love and grow or any of that other gooey human stuff, he stands rigidly for a code and shoots copious holes in anyone that doesn’t agree. So there’s not a lot of character to get your head around but it’s also a fine line not making him ridiculous or laughable, and Urban (after long weeks of training his frowny-muscles, I suspect) nails it completely. And all without taking his drokking helmet off.
Visually the whole thing comes together nicely, from the oppressively drab tones of the super-apartment building to the snazzy judge uniforms (minus codpiece this time, thank grud) and trippy time-crawling effects of the latest drug craze, Slo-mo. With a relatively low budget (for a movie like this) the filmmakers have managed to pull off their bloody opus with very little compromise.
Having cleverly established the dark, hard world of Dredd without actually showing us much of it at all, it seems like the film is just begging for a follow up – and if they can maintain the same balance of gratuitous violence and charging pace, I’ll queue for that. It might have been nice to see a little of 2000 AD’s more adventurous sci-fi elements sneak in around the edges, but as far as ‘reboots’ go this one’s an easy win.
Dredd 3D is in theatres October 4.