There are several ways to make a movie based on a comic book. You can go big, ala Iron Man or The Avengers, which means tying explosions and one-liners together with bits of mostly vapid plot. There is the more general Marvel approach, which is almost the same, but more soap opera elements and, usually, a smidgen fewer explosions. Christopher Nolan wrote the book on the moody, slow-burn interpretation, but so far he’s the only one to pull it off and with arguably the best character to do that with. Then there is the approach that treats its source material with deep respect, sometimes to a flawed level.
Judge Dredd is not everyone’s archetype for a comic book star. Born out of the pages of 2000 AD, he’s had a solid few decades as the ultimate antihero. As a cop patrolling one of the future’s massive post-nuclear cities, his extreme prejudice towards violence and righting wrongs with death is only tempered by the chaotic world he inhabits. In other words, he shoots to kill and with less introspection than even “Dirty” Harry Callahan could muster.
The plot makes short work of getting to the core of the tale. Dredd, charged with evaluating the rookie Anderson, responds to a triple-homicide at a city block – giant buildings that house several thousand citizens. During the investigation – which suitably involves shooting a few ‘perps’ – the pair arrest a key figure to drug lord Ma-Ma’s operation. Appropriately, as she controls the building, Ma-Ma sends the block into lockdown, aiming to kill the judges before they uncover her entire enterprise.
This description has elicited comparisons to movies such as The Raid: Redemption, which also involves a handful of cops taking on a tower littered with bad guys. Dredd does not quite go that route. In fact, it seems to avoid set-pieces – those explosions between the plot – where it can, opting for a more measured pace. This might be to its detriment and explains why the movie failed to get traction among mainstream audiences. It’s simply not bombastic enough, with none of the paint-on charm you encounter in too many of today’s comic films.
Instead, it heads for short bursts of explosive violence, tense moments of cat-and-mouse, and more than one sneering remark from Dredd. Karl Urban, who plays the lead, grabs the role with both hands and his on-screen interpretation of the anti-hero is spot-on. When Dredd utters his immortal line “I am the law”, it comes with all the menace and danger that was so lacking from the first attempt at this franchise. Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, is the perfect effeminate counter to his character, just as her role tends to be in the comics. But like the paper-bound Anderson, this version is not all that soft. She is, after all, still a judge and there is little hesitation in the execution of her duties – pun intended.
With Dredd, of course, there is none, though the script is smart to not oversell him to the audience. He’s both fitting for fans and easy enough to digest for newcomers. Likewise, Lena Heady’s portrayal of Ma-Ma is menacing, but subtle. It never becomes Dredd vs. her, but Dredd against the situation.
Alas, this is also the problem. Dredd is the wrong type of comic movie for the current era. Had this been the film that appeared in 1995, it might have done better. As one person who saw the film commented, it felt just like paging through a graphic novel, something most comic films actually fail to do. The set design is great, as are the costumes. A tip of the hat should also go to the 3D, which is neither gimmicky nor tacked-on. The film does a terrific job conveying much of the squalor and madness that is Megacity 1. You can nitpick, but fans will find few flaws in this first outing.
Sadly, in order to make a comic book film really work, you have to sell it far beyond that meagre pool. Comics sell in their mere thousands or, if you are lucky, hundred-thousands. A blockbuster needs millions of eyeballs and that means playing fast and loose with the material. But you can’t do that with Dredd, as Stallone discovered. It robs the very essence from the series. So Dredd does right by fans and by anyone who likes their sci-fi less than sterile. The real pity of its underperformance is that a sequel will be in doubt, yet a second film would be quite something. It also does not bode well for any other intelligent comic projects. If Dredd failed to break the bank, don’t hold out for something like Preacher or Y The Last Man to do any better.
Dredd does away with the frills and vapid mentality that too many comic films get stuck in. The movie is not perfect – it might have done with a few more action sequences and opportunities for the judge to show just why he is the most dangerous one around. Your hair doesn’t quite get blown away. But if you pull yourself away from the idea that a good movie requires the Bruckheimer-isms that have entrenched themselves in the genre, you’ll find Dredd to be a gem. A really tough, mean, hardcore gem.
Last Updated: October 2, 2012