I remember I was about eleven years old when I picked up my first issue of Judge Dredd: The Megazine at the local newsagents. It was mind-blowing, unlike any comic I’d read before. It was bloody and brutal, and I was hooked. At the time I was there mostly for the ultraviolence, but as I grew older I picked up on the comedy and satire of the strip. Dredd’s first big screen appearance, courtesy of Sylvester Stallone in 1995, may have had the big Hollywood budget but lacked all the elements that made Dredd unique. Seventeen years down the line, Mega City One’s greatest lawman returns to the screen in Dredd. Have the makers learned the lessons from the last time? Let’s find out.
In the future a great nuclear war world destroys the majority of the planet. To protect themselves from the harshness of this Cursed Earth, the survivors round themselves in to giant conurbations known as mega cities. The greatest of these cities is Mega City One, a vast piece of urban sprawl covering most of the United States’ eastern seaboard. 800 million people are crammed into this megalopolis in towering megablocks. The only way law and order can be maintained is with instant justice, dispensed by motorbike riding judges, and the greatest of all these judges is Dredd (Karl Urban). Dredd finds himself taking the final assessment of rookie judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a cadet whose test scores have been low but who has unique psychic abilities. Dredd and Anderson find themselves investigating the murders of three gang members at the Peach Trees megablock, where they discover it houses the factory for a new drug sweeping the city – Slo-Mo. When they’re about to call for reinforcements, psychotic gang leader Madeline “Ma Ma” Madrigal (Lena Headley) shuts down the block, locking the two judges within and orders the inhabitants to kill them. The judges have two choices – climb the tower and take out Ma Ma, or die. Guess what they do?
That’s the thing about Dredd. The simplicity. It doesn’t try to over-complicate things. It doesn’t add an unnecessary love story or a twisting turning conspiracy plot. The judges get trapped in a tower block and have to fight their way out. Nothing more and nothing less. Dredd, tough and taciturn, and brilliantly played by Karl Urban, doesn’t learn anything. He hasn’t grown as character by the end of the film, he remains the same throughout. It stays true to the essence of the comic strip, from Dredd never removing his helmet (much love to both Urban and Tom Hardy for being brave enough to this in a world of actorly egos), darkly comic lines delivered expertly, to the gore, as bullets tear their way through flesh followed by arching jets of blood, all this in glorious slow motion.
Olivia Thirlby provides the film’s emotional involvement as Anderson, in two minds and hesitant as to whether she wants to be a judge, still she is strong and extremely capable. There are a few niggles, though. The budget doesn’t quite match the megabucks thrown at Sylvester Stallone’s, and it shows. The vehicles in the film are contemporary and nowhere near as futuristic as comic. Peach Trees block is meant to feel like giant favela in the sky, and in a way it does, but the concrete corridors can become dull quite quickly. Also the use of slow motion almost outstays its welcome. But niggles are all they are and can be easily overlooked in the pure enjoyment of the film.
Dredd is so much more fun that it had any right to be. It has overcome the rumours of behind the scenes ructions between director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland to be a wonderfully enjoyable slice of sci-fi action. It’s lean and mean like the man himself. Go see it. Go support it. Go prove that not every British film need be a costume drama or gangster flick.
Dredd out on UK screen right now and arrives in the US on the 21st September.