The offspring of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Mega City One’s chief lawman is the most famous character to emerge from the pages of the comic and has been perennially popular. The stories, refined and inspired by the darker years of the Thatcher government, have always been a prism for barely concealed political commentary. Dredd has managed to be both exciting and philosophically engaging, and it was with wide-eyed optimism that I put the VHS of the Sylvester Stallone adaptation into the machine fifteen years ago.
We’ll draw a veil over what happened next. But it wasn’t pretty.
It was with similar levels of optimism that I approached Dredd’s second foray into the movies. But I am not a fool, and, once bitten twice shy, I was nervous. Would I be disappointed a second time? I shouldn’t have worried.
Mega City One is dirty and gritty, a world that has passed through numerous atomic wars and is bearing the scars. It has a teeming underclass and crime is at epidemic levels. The only way to that has proven successful in reining things has been to create the Justice Department and, its street operatives, the Judges. This armoured, anonymous militia, armed to the teeth with voice-activated weaponry and driving the kind of motorbike that makes the road vibrate, they act as judge, jury and executioner. The best of the judges – by which I mean the one you would least want to cross – is Dredd. He has been asked to evaluate the rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) from the Justice Department’s Psych Division. She isn’t much of a killer, but she has psychic powers that enable her to pursue criminals in subtler ways. During the evaluation both Judges are trapped in one of MC1’s huge tower blocks. Peach Trees Towers has been commandeered by a ruthless drug lord, Ma Ma (Lene Headley), who is making and pushing Slo-Mo, the hottest drug on the street (which does exactly what it says on the tin). Dredd and Anderson need to get out of the tower, and the only way to do that is to take down Ma Ma. Cue a lot of ultraviolence, a lot of slo mo, and a hell of a lot of blood.
Judge Dredd 3D is not going to win awards in January. And, true, it has has some of its sting drawn by the superb The Raid, which addressed issues of budget constraints with exactly the same solution: set your characters in a locked-off building, put them on the bottom floor and have them battle their way to the top. Plot development is non-existent: it involves waves of thugs that the Judges must dispatch in ever more resourceful ways. It is a brutal, super-violent, subversively funny film that will appeal to fanboys in a big way and just might garner the kind of word of mouth that will mean it grosses the $50m that it would take for Alex Garland and Co to be greenlit for the trilogy they have planned.
Karl Urban is superb as the titular lawman and thankfully puts his ego second before the needs of the character; this is a Dredd that leaves his helmet on. That’s obviously a challenge to any actor but he manages to provide depth to the character with the tone of his voice and a jutting jaw.
The film is true to the source material in most other respects, too, including a viciousness that earns its 18 rating and then some. What the film lacks in plot and subsidiary characterisation it more than makes up for in creative death and buckets of blood and gore. You can’t help but think that writer Garland has given director Travis the idea of a drug that can slow down time just so that he can employ Max Payne style bullet time but, to his credit, he doesn’t go overboard with the effect and there is one moment in particular where it is used to impressive effect.
Dredd is the only character with any depth, and that is limited to variations on a theme: anger, rage, ennui, fatigue. But that doesn't matter, because deep characterisation isn't what you'll be expecting when you buy your ticket. You want an exciting ride, a vision of a dark future, and an adaptation faithful to the venerated source material, and you'll get all of that and a little bit more.
Splundigg Vur Thrigg, friends. This one comes recommended.