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Comic book movies are all the rage. Some might believe that it’s a fad with an end to come soon but not I. If there’s a moment that I can point to and claim as evidence in my belief it’s the stratospheric success of The Dark Knight, released in 2008. That ushered in a new approach to the mainstream superhero: one that played down the origins of the source material (from comic books) and made it secondary to the story.
The success of The Dark Knight might have led to why Judge Dredd was given its most recent reboot as a feature film. The 2012 Dredd is a closer cousin to the 2000 AD comic book source material than the more infantile 1995 movie that starred Sylvester Stallone as the main character. Instead of playing Dredd as a unstoppable Conan the Barbarian like muscular hero, this new Dredd (played by Star Trek’s Karl Urban) acts like a futuristic Dirty Harry – which is precisely what Dredd’s two creators were thinking of back in the 1970s when they made the character.
Still, not all of Dredd (2012) resembles the same 2000 AD universe. Some of the more fantastic elements found in the comics are played down or ignored for the new Dredd movie. Concepts like Judge Death, a reaper-like creature from a parallel world, or the mutants in the fallout laden wastelands that lie outside Dredd’s turf of Mega City One, aren’t included here. While it would’ve been cool to have seen them realized in this grittier, faithful version of Judge Dredd, it doesn’t take away from the screen story.
Armed with only a $35 million dollar budget, the makers of Dredd created a “bottle” story that didn’t need to show off expensive city scenes or costly FX. They shot their movie in South Africa, around slums and urban sprawl, so that their Mega City One could have a real sense of being lived in by the masses. And by bottling up the main character in an environment which doesn’t need to change much, they maximized their sets and turned their financial liability into an storytelling asset.
Mega City One’s toughest lawman, Dredd is tasked with assessing a young Judge recruit named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to see if she has what it takes to be a full Judge. The duo go to a routine call (one of up to 15,000 crimes that happen daily in their Mega City, with only 6% ever responded to) at a high-rise called Peach Trees. Stuffed with a population of 45,000, Peach Trees is ruled by drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), seller of a new narcotic called Slo-Mo. Take a shot of Slo-Mo and time winds down to 1/100th of its normal speed, so your high can last longer. With two Judges sniffing around, Ma-Ma locks down her building and orders her men to kill the Judges. There’s only one way out for Dredd and Anderson, and that’s up to the highest floor in Peach Trees, level 200.
When I read the script for Dredd I thought that it was smartly written. The finished movie fulfills the promise of that script; it’s well directed. The actors do good performances, and to Urban’s credit, you never once see Dredd with his helmet off (save for one moment in silhouette at the start), and the slow motion Slo-Mo scenes nicely realized.
With a smartly and entertaining realized finished product to watch, Dredd failed to be a box office success, leaving its prospects for a sequel dark and gloomy. But on DVD, it has a shot of being one of those films that has a second chance finding its audience. I hope it does.
There’s six bonus featurettes on the Dredd DVD, two of which are longer and more substantial than the rest. “Mega-City Masters” is a retrospective of 35 years of Judge Dredd in the comics, and it features interviews from several comic book veterans about the impact of the character to the industry. It’s a good short to watch if you want to learn about Judge Dredd and his lengthy history to comic book fandom.
The second longer featurette is “Day of Chaos” which offers a closer look at the visual effects. Here’s where you can learn about the creative ingenuity of the filmmakers and how they stretched their $35 million dollar budget into something that looks like double the amount.
Dredd turned out to be a good movie for his old-time fans of the anti-hero and for newcomers not familiar with the source material. And if your perception of Judge Dredd has been shaped by the ’95 Stallone film here’s an opportunity to reset your mindset. It’s worth a watch.
Review Score: 70 / 100
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