Judge Dredd finally returns to the screen with Karl Urban in the starring role. Are the memories of Sylvester Stallone's take finally erased? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Pete Travis Written By: Alex Garland; Based on the 2000AD comics and characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra Runtime: 100 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated R
Judge Dredd - Karl Urban Judge Anderson - Olivia Thirlby Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal - Lena Headey Kay - Wood Harris Clan Techie - Domhnall Gleeson Judge Lex - Langley Kirkwood Judge Alvarez - Deobia Oparei Chief Judge - Rakie Ayola
At this year's San Diego Comic-Con, I was among the lucky few able to witness the early preview screening of Dredd 3D. Having been a longtime fan of the character and comics, I was both cautiously excited and also skeptical in anticipation of seeing the movie. I was ready to see and enjoy a new take on the character on film, but after seeing early production photos and clips, I still wasn't sure. I was also concerned with the rumors of trouble on the production with director Peter Travis and writer/producer Alex Garland taking control of the movie in post-production. Seventeen years removed from the release of the much-maligned big budget flop of the original Judge Dredd movie starring Sylvester Stallone as the eponymous Judge Dredd, a new cinematic take on the character is finally born with Dredd 3D. Director Pete Travis goes back to the basics of the dystopic future of Mega-City One in the 2000AD Judge Dredd comics created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. After a cataclysm that has turned most of the world into a veritable Cursed Earth, the remains of civilization lie in the Mega cities. The only remaining law enforcement are the Judges who police the streets and act as personal judge, jury, and executioner to the criminal element. Chiefly respected amongst the Judges is Judge Dredd (Urban). The no-nonsense, law and order obsessed Dredd is charged by the Chief Judge (Ayola) to give a final Judge’s assessment of the rookie Judge Anderson (Thirlby). Anderson failed her main exam by three points much to Dredd’s disappointment, but her skills are sought after by the Chief Judge due Anderson’s impressive psychic ability.
So Dredd reluctantly becomes the training officer for “rookie” Judge Anderson and breaks down the life of being a Judge in Mega-City One. Anderson decides to have the pair respond to a multiple homicide report from the Peach Trees Mega-Block. Dredd and Anderson discover a group of bodies that have been almost ritually skinned and sent careening down from the top floor. The bodies belonged to dealers of the debilitating narcotic “slo-mo,” and Peach Trees happens to be the production hub of the drug headed by Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Headey) and her gang. Unfortunately for Dredd and Anderson, Ma-Ma gains wind of their presence and puts the entire block under lockdown. With no way out, no communications for back-up, Dredd and Anderson are trapped in a building where pretty much everyone wants them dead, if someone isn’t in the pocket of Ma-Ma they are likely a disenfranchised citizen with no love loss for the Judges. And so it’s a battle for survival and wills between Ma-Ma and her forces and the unyielding Dredd.
Now to the matter of Karl Urban’s performance as the one and only Judge Dredd. Is it a perfect performance? Well I’m hesitant to say yes, but it's pretty close to perfect. His performance is without hyperbole much better than Stallone's interpretation. Urban thankfully maintains the integrity, substance, and essence of the character. There’s a quick scene at the prologue in the film where we see Dredd getting ready and dressed up for a day of work dispensing justice at Mega-City One. We see Dredd’s silhouette and his head sans the helmet in the shadows. Just as it looks like the profile of Urban is about to come into the frame it stays in the shadows. Dredd suits up and puts on the helmet and has it on for the remainder of the film. Urban thankfully commits to the character 100% which is difficult considering we never see his eyes and he has to emote and do a lot with just his mouth and chin. I think the moments I appreciate the moments is Dredd’s sardonic sense of humor in this incredibly bleak, grim, and horrible world. Urban’s one-liners in the movie are fantastic and perfectly timed. But there are also those moments where despite Dredd’s harsh, cold, and ruthless nature deep down he does have a conscious. Even though he’s a tool of a dubious, fascist system and he’s a borderline satiric cartoon character, it’s through his relationship with Anderson and some other specific moments you see that deep down there is a conscience under that helmet and armor. But Urban and Garland I think do understand the character and are able to walk that line in presenting the substance of the character but also the darkly humorous and over the top elements of the character in a satisfying way without it falling into the bad and unintentional camp of Stallone’s version.
In terms of story, I like what Dredd 3D brings to the table. This is in no ways an origin story. So the movie is not bogged down with obligatory origin movie nonsense and tropes. There’s a quick amount of establishment of Mega-City One, the Judges, and it dives right in from there. Rather than approaching Dredd’s history from scratch, the story jumps right into Dredd as the top Judge in Mega-City One. While I don’t necessarily mind origin stories, with the recent long line of comic book flicks, the repetition of origin stories has become quite tiresome between the disappointing Green Lantern from last year and inferior origin story presented in The Amazing Spider-Man this year. Dredd 3D boldly and thankfully avoids having to go through all of that and it’s a welcome change. However, with his script, screenwriter Alex Garland presents a story that doesn’t go deep into the world and mythology of the character. And as much as I wanted to finally see Judge Death and the Dark Judges onscreen, that would’ve been way too much for a new movie trying to reintroduce the character onscreen to audiences. But the movie does at least reference the existence of mutants in the world of the story, and the world of the story is implied to be much bigger than what is mainly presented for the main story arc.
When I saw the production photos of the vehicles and some of the sets from the movie, initially I was sort of put off by how cheap and low-tech everything looked. But the way it's utilized and executed in the world of the story it sort of works very well like a grungy throwback, sci-fi flick or basically I found it to be a lot like classic 1980's John Carpenter. Here's my basic analogy. The 1995 Judge Dredd was like Escape From LA. Dredd was basically Escape From New York. Other times the movie comes off as a British indy art film more than a high concept comic book romp.
Since this isn’t a mega-budgeted blockbuster, the production team gets a lot out of the budget and instances of the low-tech and the in some ways de-evolved looking future. As for all the low-tech stuff, this works because even though it’s in the future, the future of Mega-City One and the Cursed Earth is sort of like a no frills future. Besides some certain bits of more advanced tech here and there. Even the Judges' tech looks like tech that would've been futuristic in the 80's or 90's but not necessarily today. The electronic crawl on the Lawgiver gun just uses basic digital letters, nothing fancy. This again sort of reminded me of Carpenter and his classic guerrilla film-making.
The level of violence, gore and kills was extreme and incredibly brutal. The 3D does a good job of showcasing the bloody and rather questionable world the Judges thrive in when Dredd and Anderson battle the perps of the Mega Block and Ma-Ma’s minions. I think at times the 3D and some of the sequences which portray the effects of the drug “slo-mo” are a little too over the top and numerous at times. The movie plays a lot better when it uses less gimmicks and focuses on quick, hard, brutal, and gritty action.
Overall, Dredd 3D should be seen as a great reboot and reintroduction of the character on film. The slate of Sylvester Stallone has now hopefully been wiped clean.
The 411: Dredd 3D brings the character back to the screen in authentic style and hopefully will put to bed the bad memories of 1995 movie at last. This is fun, quick and dirty action movie with lots of hard-hitting grit and bloody violence. Urban's take on Dredd is fun and entertaining and the helmet always stays on. At times the movie does go overboard with the effects of "slo-mo." And there was a lot more I wanted to learn about the mythology of the world of Mega-City One and the Judges, but those are minor complaints. This dystopic world of Mega-City One and Judge Dredd is one I would very much like to see revisited again.