“It’s all a deep end”
My introduction to the 22nd century Mega-City One lawman came via a copy of the 2000AD Annual from 1978, a Christmas gift from a relative. Although the two Judge Dredd stories were interesting they didn’t have that much of an impact on me. Rather it was the Dan Dare and MACH 1 stories that caught my eye. Saying that though, the graphic scene from the Dredd story ‘Whitey’s Brother’ where the villain gets disintegrated did creep me out.
It would be another four years before I would meet Dredd again and this time the encounter would stick. In June or early July of 1982 my school held it’s annual summer fate and I volunteered to donate a Saturday afternoon to help out. I was asked to work on the second-hand stall which contained the usual bric-a-brac you tend to find at those events: old books, clothes, LPs and, well, tat. For me however, there was treasure to be found in that pile of donated odds and sods – a large stack of 2000ADs, the weekly British comic that Dredd has appeared in from Prog (issue) 2. The pile numbered about 30 comics and contained the entire Apocalypse War story line from Progs 244-270. I spent a pleasant afternoon on that stall thanks to those comics. By the end of the afternoon they remained unsold so I bought the lot for 10p (all my pocket money at the time), went home and read the lot in one evening. I was hooked.
During the ’80s I collected 2000AD and the reprint series The Chronicles of Judge Dredd, funding my collection with a couple of part-time jobs. Strangely enough, even though the Dredd stories were graphic and very cinematic it never occurred to me at that time that Dredd would make good film fodder. I always though the Robo-Hunter strip (private eye working in a futuristic City were almost everything is a robot) would work far better as a film.
Then in 1987 we did get a Dredd film of sorts. Paul Verhoeven’s terrific Robocop feels like a Dredd film in all but name and shared many of the strips qualities – the graphic violence and satire all seemed indebted to 2000AD.
Then in the early ’90s rumours began to spread that a big-budget Hollywood version of Judge Dredd was in the works. Thanks to the success of the Tim Burton Batman films, superhero movies were briefly in vogue. I seem to recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger was originally slated for the lead (remember this was before the Internet so I may be wrong on this) but eventually Sylvester Stallone won the role. My chagrin at the casting was offset somewhat by the images and stills that found their way into the media once filming began. Apart from his costume (and that bloody codpiece) the film looked great. Dredd’s distinctive bike, the Lawmaster, looked cool as did the other props and Mega-City One (home to over 800 million people) looked suitably awesome. There were rumours that The Angel Gang would appear as well as Hammerstein from 2000AD’s ABC Warriors strip. Finally, I hoped, Dredd would get the movie treatment he so richly deserved and I imagined a string of sequels with Dredd finally entering into popular culture the way the American superheroes had. Then my excitement hit fever pitch when I managed to wangle a ticket to a press preview of the film at Leicester Square’s Empire Cinema – at the time I worked for a magazine publisher and managed to blag a ticket from the film’s PR department.
On the night I sat there with a group of film critics feeling very important and privileged (and smug). The film started out promisingly with lots of action and gunplay, perfect Dredd. There were some attempts at the satire that so characterises the strip – Dredd blowing up an illegally parked car was fun – and the film did indeed look great. MegaCity One’s enormity came over very well. I was slightly perturbed when Dredd removed his helmet (in the comic the character’s face has never been seen), but I could live with it – everyone knows what Stallone looks like anyway, so what the hell.
And then Rob Schneider turns the film to shit. I’m not going to get bogged down in recriminations of Schneider’s role, plenty of Dredd fans have already done that. His character (Fergie) is poorly written comedy relief and that’s not really the actor’s fault. Let’s just say that his character pretty much ruins the film and leave it at that. Unfortunately that wasn’t the only problem. The film was thin on plot and character development and top heavy on spectacle – in other words, it was like every other Hollywood action flick from the Nineties. And the writers attempt to give Dredd a catch phrase (“I knew you’d say that”) was just plain sad. After the film was over I left the cinema feeling pretty deflated. I couldn’t understand how the filmmakers could get the look of Dredd’s world so right and yet screw up the rest of the film so badly. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who felt let down. When it was released the film died on it’s arse raking in just over $113m worldwide, and with it died the chance for any future film reincarnation of Judge Dredd. Or so I thought.
Things went quite for a while. There were rumours in the early ’00s that filmmakers were seeking funding for a new Dredd film but nothing seemed to happen for years. Clearly the stench from the 1995 film was so bad that no-one wanted to back another attempt at bringing the character to the screen.
Then in 2006 things slowly started to move on a new film; it was announced that Alex Garland (28 Days later) was writing a script. In 2009 Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code) was offered the directors chair but it eventually went to TV director Pete Travis. Then Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek) signed on as the main character – an interesting but not obvious choice. Still, despite all this positive forward momentum I remained weary, especially when it was announced that the budget for the new film would be around the $50m mark – cheap for a futuristic and effects-heavy action film (that year’s Iron Man 2 cost $200m) – and that Cape Town would substitute for MegaCity One. Cape Town? Not the first place that comes to mind of when I think of a city with mile high skyscrapers.
This sense of foreboding only increased when stills from the film made their way onto the Internet. Instead of the high-tech transport and ordinance from the comic, we had 4×4’s with large bumpers and a crappy looking Lawmaster bike. Dredd’s costume made him look like a motorcycle courier and his helmet was just too damn big. Coupled with a piss-poor marketing campaign (I don’t recall seeing a proper poster for the movie until about three months before it’s release) and an uninspired trailer, I’d pretty much written the film off as cheap B-movie fodder. And to top it all off the films title was changed to ‘Dredd 3D’. Urggh, no thanks.
So when I eventually did get round to watching the film it was with no small amount of trepidation. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as the Stallone version? I needn’t have worried however because I loved every loud, crazy, violent second of Dredd. Taking place more or less in real time the film starts with the murder of three drug pushers within one of the city’s blocks, a 200 story apartment building. Dredd and rookie judge Anderson are sent to investigate and are quickly trapped inside the building by the de-facto ruler of this mini-city within a city, the gang leader Ma-Ma, ably played by Lena Headey. She wants the Judges dead and orders the inhabitants to either help with their murder or stay out of the way. Dredd and Anderson must fight to stay alive in the hope of reaching the top floor and dispensing justice to Ma-Ma and her gang.
The script is lean and well written, hitting every plot target it aims at. Karl Urban is great as the gravely voiced Dredd and he keeps his helmet on for the entire film (yay!). Olivia Thirlby plays rookie judge Anderson with a mixture of strength and fragility, a difficult combination to get right. The film pays homage to the comic but doesn’t let itself get bogged down in trying to please the comics fans (although a film poster nod to one of the comics classic story lines, the Judge Child Quest, is a nice touch). True, Cape Town is not a great stand-in for Mega-City One – during the opening chase sequence the city looks more like Birmingham than the 22nd century metropolis. (It’s a shame that we can’t somehow take the Mega-City from the Stallone version and add it to this movie – what a film that would be!). However, once the film moves inside the confines of the Peach Trees block the film clicks in gear and doesn’t lose pace until the end. And the violence, although extreme in places, is justified within the confines of the story – Mega-City One is a violent place after all.
With such a strong central character the film was always going to rely very heavily on it’s lead actor. Luckily Karl Urban’s performance not only grounds the film, he is a genuine pleasure to watch. His Dredd is taciturn and grim in equal measure, exactly like the comic – I suspect that if you were to compare Dredd’s body count to the number of words he speaks the body count would be higher. There’s also a wonderful sense of business-as-usual with his character. What happens in the film may be exciting to the audience but it’s just a days work to him. My favourite scene is around the fifty-five minute mark when Anderson lays out the films plot, explaining why they are being hunted and why they will not be allowed to leave alive. His response, a growled “interesting”, sums up the character perfectly. And that sense of understatement is carried through to the film’s finale. When he finally confronts Ma-Ma the meeting is brief and almost workman-like. There is no attempt to build her up as a creditable threat in a one-to-one situation – Dredd has just fought his way up 200 floors of heavily armed thugs so what kind of treat could she pose? There’s no grandstanding, no fisticuffs – he just throws her out the window and moves on.
Sadly, despite the positive press the film garnered it did terrible at the box-office, talking less than $36m worldwide. It did do brisk business when released on DVD and Blu-ray but the chance of a sequel look remote. Pity really as it was one of the best films from 2012 and easily one of the most faithful comic book adaptions ever made. It may be a while before Dredd is seen again in the cinema but at least we’ve got 35 years worth of stories and one excellent movie to keep us going in the meantime.
See more Dredd at the IMDB
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