Karl-Heinz Urban, the actor who plays Judge Dredd in this film, always looks as if he is about to explode into laughter, as if he, to paraphrase Grace Slick, shares a little joke with the world. One would think this is about as far from the dark British comic book character as possible, yet Urban manages to channel the super-Dirty-Harry almost flawlessly, right down to the Clint Eastwood delivery of his closely cropped dialogue. He never removes that signature helmet with its red "X" between his eyes, either, which goes a long way toward establishing a link with the comic character.
Unlike Harry, Dredd lives in a monstrously dystopian future, where the entire police force is made up of Dirty Harry's. At one point early in the film, he recites the depressing crime statistics in Mega-City One, which stretches from Boston to DC and contains eight hundred million souls (a nod and a wink to The Naked City, perhaps, with its mere eight million,) and tops it by noting the Judges can only respond to 6% of the crime. No wonder they are police, judge, jury and executioner.
Many comic book to movie adaptations fail for several reasons. The first and foremost is they mine their source material and run amok—DICK TRACY is perhaps the worst of these. The second is they try too hard to cram too much from the mythology of the characters into a single film—the 1995 JUDGE DREAD suffers from this as well as the fact its lead actor, Sylvester Stallone's personal myth overshadows that of his character. The third is poor film making—anything from bad writing, directing, acting, editing, et cetera. The fourth is the need to update the material for a modern audience. And the fifth is the need to satirize the original material, to make it campy, which detracts from the experience. Fortunately DREDD suffers from none of these—in fact, it is considerably less satirical than the comic, which does not hurt it one bit. Fortunately, as well, the script otherwise largely adheres to the spirit of its source although the Judge's bionic eyes are missing.
The plot is streamlined. After the opening introduction to the city and the hero, Dredd evaluates a rookie Judge, aptly played by Olivia Thrilby, who is also a psychic. What starts out as a routine triple homicide, becomes a war between them and a drug cartel inside the 200 story skyscraper in which they become trapped—two judges versus an army of thugs plus a few crooked cops. The very nasty villain, played by the gorgeous Lena Headey made up to look a fright, manufactures slo-mo, a delightful psychedelic that slows one's perception to roughly 1% of normal. What a rush! Those scenes which display the user's perceptions while under the influence are among the most memorable in the film.
The world is uber depressing, there is no hope for the underclass. There are lots of pyrotechnics, shooting, and mayhem—it's definitely a guy-film. Everything is tight, true to its characters, and there is even a bit of character development in the hero and his charge for the writers in the audience. Much of the marvelous detail will disappear when it comes to TV next year, pulling the teeth from the story. So if enough of you go see it on the big screen, there is likely to be two more installments (not that this one left anything hanging,) and maybe even a TV series!
© Paul L. Bates 2012