FOR A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE to be considered successful, and therefore spawn a sequel and become a franchise, it has to at least double its budget in revenue. To date, Dredd has wriggled like a gut-shot perp only as far as breaking even… just. Sequel, anyone?
Numerous reasons exist for this, but more on that later. For now, I have to confess that I can’t write this review without allowing myself a large portion of self indulgence. You see, 2000 AD is possibly my all-time favourite comic book. It was certainly the one I looked forward to reading the most when I was a kid, and that was mainly because of Judge Dredd. So when I first heard that another film adaptation of this superb character was in development, well, there’s not a word in the English language that could describe how excited I was.
Fans were of course offered the first adaptation of this comic book with the film Judge Dread, released back in 1995, and any review or conversation regarding the current adaptation of this comic book character would be lacking if it ignored this particular film’s existence.
Starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by Danny Cannon, who, not surprisingly, moved into TV soon after, Judge Dredd wasn’t an entirely terrible movie, but it was certainly a product of its time. What I mean by that is that the 90s were an unfortunate age for the action genre, particularly in Hollywood. Heavy-handed CGI and a reliance on comedy, usually in the guise of humorous sidekicks (Rob Schneider!), plagued the genre and altered what could have been thought-provoking blockbusters into juvenile fodder that the masses consumed without tasting, and that was the case with Judge Dredd. The film contained interesting ideas about justice and the austere interpretation of law, but Cannon’s inert and puerile direction, along with the film’s overall comic book production design, only managed to further reduce its credibility, inevitably resulting in the box office flop it quickly became.
Seventeen years later we have Dredd, no less the comic book adaptation, but with a whole different attitude. Karl Urban (The Bourne Supremecy, The Chronicles of Riddick, Star Trek et al) slips on the iconic helmet and puts his chin through its paces. Just like the comic book, we never see Urban’s face behind the mask, just that jawline. And this is where the film begins to state its intentions; this is going to be a faithful adaptation of the comic’s tone.
The film opens with a view of a sprawling Mega-City One and its mega blocks (City Blocks in the comic), high-rise towers that home eight million people. Then we’re introduced to Dredd in the obligatory action sequence opening.
Dredd’s on his Lawmaster giving chase to a van full of ‘perps’. When the perps “wipe out an innocent”, Dredd takes them out, but one escapes into a shopping mall, and Dredd calmly pursues him. Travis’ directing here cleverly lulls the audience into a false sense of security. The opening couple of minutes have gone some way to setting up the tone of this picture, so we already expect to be treated to some realistic violence. Yet as the perp indiscriminately blows away anyone foolish enough to get in his way, Travis demonstrates restraint by refusing to show us these violent shootings. Instead, he forces the audience to follow Dredd’s composed pursuit through the mall, only witnessing as he does the body-strewn aftermath of the executions.
Travis is toying with us, holding back because he knows he’s going to shock us with some distinct violence later in the film. Even when this opening sequence culminates in the inevitable death of the perp, thanks to a ‘hotshot’ round from Dredd’s Lawgiver that burns out the inside of the perp’s head, it is nothing compared to the unflinching violence ahead.
Dredd is teamed up with a rookie judge called Cassandra Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby. Now, I couldn’t compose my excitement when I learned that Anderson’s character would be included in this adaptation. She is possibly the second best character in the entire Judge Dredd universe (Judge Death being a close third). I was attracted to Anderson’s character in the comic books because she’s a psychic, with the ability to read people’s minds and ultimately brings devastation to Mega-City One when her mutant abilities allow Judge Death into her worldly realm. But that’s another tale.
The story starts proper when the two judges are called to a triple homicide at Peach Trees where the antagonist of the film, Madeline ‘Ma-Ma’ Madrigal, played by Lena Headey of Game of Thrones fame, has skinned three rival drug dealers and thrown them from the top of the 200 storey tower as a warning to all those who live inside.
Ma-Ma, a scar-faced ex-prostitute, is the sole manufacturer and distributor of slo-mo, a drug that makes users perceive time at one per cent of its normal speed, and she isn’t going to let anybody stand in the way of this lucrative business. So when Dredd and Anderson arrest one of her top thugs and haul him away for interrogation, Ma-Ma locks down the building so no one can leave, and orders everyone in the tower who’s capable to hunt down the judges.
What follows is a barrage of brutal and destructive confrontations as the incredibly outnumbered judges make their way up to Ma-Ma’s pad at the top of Peach Trees tower. And this is where Travis lets rip with his unflinching yet dazzling violence. Bullets tear through flesh in a slow motion manner that would elate any Sam Peckinpah fan. Take a long look at the images below and click them for larger versions…
Although the special effects ladled onto these violent set pieces were stunning in 2D, they were clearly designed for 3D. However, I have strong feelings about 3D technology, or, as my good colleague calls it, “3D gimmick-o-scope”, so I haven’t watched the 3D version of Dredd. Yet, if there was ever a movie that deserved the 3D makeover, Dredd is it, and if I ever get a chance to watch the 3D version, I’ll definitely give it a go.
This Judge Dredd adaptation gets a lot right, like refusing to take on the judge’s garments a la the comic book, which is what the 1995 Stallone vehicle did to its detriment. The original uniform is clearly not designed for street combat, and although a comic book artist as skilled as Ezquerra can make it work on the page, this fact becomes obvious once it’s translated to the screen – if Stallone’s film does anything, it proves that point.
The production design on Dredd is superb, mainly because the producers achieved so much with an estimated budget of only $45m – most Hollywood Summer fair command budgets anywhere between $100-$250m. Starting with Dredd’s suit, the production designer Mark Digby (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) kept faithful to the helmet but the remainder has been efficiently redesigned to suit that urban combat role that the judges perform daily, and therefore give the movie a sense of realism.
Realism is the buzz word with Dredd. Gone is the humour of the comic book and, thankfully, of Stallone’s 1995 version, with his infuriating sidekick, played by Rob Schneider. Gone, too, is the social commentary that was so admirable of the comic book. What remains is dark and dingy, yet at its heart, Dredd is a straightforward action film – the two Judges simply have to fight their way through hordes of henchmen to get to the top of the tower and confront Ma-Ma.
The overriding beauty of this adaptation, though, is the character of Judge Dredd. Of all the things this film gets right, the character is top of the list – Dredd is perfect. The writer, Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine), could have taken a similar route to Stallone’s version and shown the human side of Joseph Dredd, reveal his back story and humanise him for the audience, giving the viewer something to empathise with. Did Garland ever consider that avenue? I doubt it. He’s simply taken the futuristic, square-jawed cop from the comics and planted him on screen with surgical precision. And Urban gets it, perfecting Dredd’s deadpan traits like he was born to play the part – a grunt here, a monosyllabic response there. He doesn’t crack one-liners like Stallone did and he doesn’t grow or change as a character. Instead, the emotional through-line is given to Thirlby’s character, Anderson.
She’s failed all the tests to become a judge, but because she is the most powerful psychic the Hall of Justice has ever known, the Chief Judge orders Dredd to take her out on the streets, drop her in the deep end, and assess her. “It’s all the deep end,” Dredd growls, and we know that a trial by fire is a terrible understatement for what Anderson is about to go through.
Dredd was clearly designed for the 3D market, and it’s become clear that without that market, Dredd would never have been made. Like I said, if ever a film deserved to be shown in 3D, Dredd is the one. But this caused it numerous problems at the box office. The inexperienced Anderson soon has to judge and sentence her first perp. Naturally the sentence is death. Naturally she hesitates… but not for too long, and a single headshot obliterates her innocence. Onward and upward she goes…
What else did Dredd get right?
Its hard, mature 18 certificate (R-rated in USA) reflects violent action sequences not seen since the days of Verhoven’s brilliant Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. The 12/12A certificate has long been the bane of the contemporary movie industry, starving the maturer audience of what it craves, so I was pleased to see this movie not pandering to a teenage demographic. In the film world a low budget means compromise. One of Dredd’s main compromises is the lack of CGI, which in its favour supports the realistic interpretation of the source material. But everything that Dredd got right ultimately unraveled its success at the box office.
So what did this movie get wrong?
The simple answer is that Dredd got nothing wrong. It’s just that the modern audience didn’t expect or understand all the things it got right. So let’s run through them.
Victim of its own design.
The 3D market isn’t as popular as the movie industry wants it to be, so it’s pushing the technology to its own detriment. Dredd suffered because it had a wide 3D cinema realease but a very limited 2D release. Like me, a large percentage of movie-going audiences don’t want to watch 3D movies. This is because some are against the technology, claiming it damages the purity of cinema (that’s me), but the biggest reason is the extra cost. And when studios and cinema chains are pushing 3D by reducing the availability of 2D screenings, the negative impact on audience figures is inevitable. I missed Dredd at the cinema for this very reason and had no choice but to wait for its DVD/Blu-Ray release.
Targeting the demographic.
Dredd’s 18 certificate targeted the maturer audience, affirming its hark back to the violent and bloody greats of the 70s, 80s and early 90s. This was a bold move in an era of the 12 rated teen movie, one I have the utmost respect for. But herein lies the problem – the fans of that era of films (the fans Dredd is aimed at) have become so dismissive of the cinema because of the prevalence of the teen movie; they no longer attend the cinema and would rather wait for the DVD/Blu-Ray release. This ironic twist has a clear impact on audience figures.
Judge Dredd was a character created and popularised within British culture. He’s been a masthead figure of 2000 AD since 1977. Yet, under an overwhelming barrage of superhero movie adaptations, it seems American audiences may have misinterpreted the film as a cheap superhero copy, and dismissed it all together.
Avengers Assemble set the bar high for comic book adaptations. Comparisons were inevitable and Dredd’s lack of current comic book conventions and CGI clearly augmented the misinterpretations.
2000 AD didn’t get a ‘single issue’ US distribution until 2011 (previously the comic was only sold in packs of five issues- costly!), so the characters are not widely known in North America. This lead to American audiences failing to understand why Dredd’s helmet wasn’t removed during the film. Audiences became disappointed at not seeing Urban’s face. Word of mouth inevitably hit audience figures.
Late on the scene.