I was 14 in 1977 when I picked up the first issue of 2000AD, a weekly comic full of exotic characters and – for a kids comic – some very adult action. In Prog#2 the world was introduced to a character that has become an icon of British comics, even though the character himself is American. Judge Dredd blasted onto the pages of 2000AD taking charge of the grim street of Mega-City 1 and bringing a weird assortment of perps to justice every week. Over the 35 years since his first appearance Joe Dredd has been through the mill, he’s faced death (literally), disaster, aliens, demons and the near destruction of his city several times. To bring such a character to the big screen is a hell of an undertaking, his following are up there among some of the most difficult to please there are. So to do the character justice (sic) it would have to be done right. On the whole I think Alex Garland has pulled it off.
Getting the character right is paramount, ignoring Sylvester Stallone’s attempt in 1995 this time round they’ve hit the nail on the head. The one thing Judge Dredd is known for is he never removes his helmet. There is never any explanation as to why – there are hints of disfigurement – and it is taken that staying true to the character’s catchphrase “I am the Law“, that the reason the character is faceless is because justice is the same. Karl Urban has the mannerisms and voice down to a tee. Back in the early days of 2000AD creator John Wagner stated that the character was heavily based on Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western man-with-no-name character. To listen to Urban deliver that famous catchphrase you can see he’s researched the character well.
To act as a foil for Dredd the writers have given him a partner, but this time round there is no cringing re-imaging of Fergie, we have Cadet Judge Cassandra Anderson who is well portrayed by Olivia Thirlby. Anderson is a Psi-Judge, mutated by the fallout from the atomic wars she has powerful psychic abilities that, despite not being the best Judge material, set her above other cadets. As with the comic character, in the film Joe Dredd is a brutal law enforcer, think Harry Callahan and times him by ten. Anderson is there to show a softer side to the future Justice system, not that she’s a pushover, she shows her metal throughout the film and proves to a skeptical Dredd that she has what it takes to police the streets of the city.
Every hero needs a villain, Dredd has his in the shape of psychotic crime boss, murderess, drug dealer Ma Ma played by Lena Headey. They could have so got this wrong – think Rico in the 1995 effort – but they managed to get a perfect balance between over-the-top madness and directed aggression. Ma Ma is the queen of her world, and as queen thinks she is above everyone, including the Judges. Her rule over the Peach Trees mega-block where the action takes place is one of total fear. Placed between the two powerful forces of Ma Ma and Dredd you have to feel for the residents, talk about a rock and a hard place.
With all the characters ticking the boxes the other problem the writers had was getting the feel of the film right. Judge Dredd is known as an ultra-violent story, if you’ve ever read the comic you’ll know what I mean. The gunshot wounds inflicted by any weapon are graphic and bloody. The effects in this film have managed to transfer that image perfectly, and is helped also by the Slo Mo effect that kicks in during some of the set pieces. Thankfully the writers made sure the tone of the comic strip was not lost, and thankfully the British censors gave the film an 18 certificate meaning we weren’t served up a watered down film.
I was a little unsure about the look of Mega City One, I suppose I’m too used to the overcrowded look of the comic version. For me the shots we had showed a city with too much open space. But then after watching I thought perhaps I was wrong. In the comic Judge Dredd is set 122 years in the future, so the first time he appeared in the comic in 1977, in Dredd’s world it was 2099. For someone back in the late 70’s the year 2099 was a long way away, in 2012, not so long. So the image created for this film is of a city not that far ahead of us in time, but enough so that we notice the differences.
So how does Dredd 3D stand up against Judge Dredd? I’ll admit to having a soft spot for the Stallone version. Yes it was flawed, Dredd takes his helmet off, the kiss, too many storylines mixed into one. But some things it did have right, the look of Mega City One was closer to the current comic image, the bikes, Mean Angel and the ABC Warrior. But watch them side-by-side (something I will do once Dredd is out on DVD) you can tell which is the superior film, and which one is closer to the source material.
I will admit to having a lot of misgivings about Dredd going in. All of those misgivings were dispelled fairly soon after the film starts, in taking the low budget, more graphic path the writers have managed to capture lightning and produce a vivid, action-packed 90 minutes that gives the viewer little time to catch their breath. The one misgiving I still have, the 3D, not so much the use of it but the films distributors and cinema chains insistence on only showing the film in the one format. Yes I watched it in 3D, I had no choice, after I had a headache, I would have preferred to have watched it in 2D, but wasn’t given the choice.
I’m hoping that Dredd is a success, I’ve heard its taken $1.6million on its opening weekend in the UK placing it at number 1 in the ratings. To get a sequel the studio have marked $50million as the target to break. Hopefully goods reviews and results in the UK will make the film a hit in the US as well.