In his native comics, Judge Dredd pulls off surprisingly sophisticated balancing act. On the surface, Dredd is little more than a blunt object, a vehicle for telling crime stories. But the SF setting was often home for some sharp satire of American culture.
The first attempt to bring Judge Dredd to the screen - I liked it more than most. (I won’t say it’s a good film, but I think it’s an underrated one.) The most common criticism of the 1995 film was that it deviated too far from the character.
Dredd nails its two main characters. They make the film. As I said, Judge Dredd is not a complicated character, and Karl Urban isn’t called upon to do any deep acting here. But screenwriter Alex Garland has given Dredd a foil, rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), one of the classic characters from the comics. The mismatched partnership of veteran and rookie has appeared in a lot of cop stories, yes, but that’s because it works. And it works again here. Dredd is the faceless bulldozer, while Anderson is barely a wisp in comparison, never covering her eyes with her helmet. They haven’t gone for easy laughs in this pairing, although there are some laugh out moments. I completely enjoyed watching how these two characters interacting with each other.
The two police officers are charged with investigating a series of death in a huge, self-contained living complex (a “block”), which is controlled by a criminal boss Ma-Ma. As Ma-Ma, Lena Headey delivers a convincing performance despite an unconvincing make-up. When Dredd and Anderson get inside the block, Ma-Ma, shuts it down, forcing the two to run the gauntlet to the top of the tower.
Despite the interest the leads held for me, the overall movie felt… unambitious. This is a standard cop plot: veteran and rookie making a drug bust. There’s none of the sharpness or satire or craziness that made the comic so popular. There’s not much reason for this movie to have Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson instead of Random Veteran Cop and Random Rookie Cop.
The lack of ambition (or maybe budget) is even more obvious in the production design. The look of this film is hugely disappointing. Take out the judges’ costumes, and this could a contemporary city slum from any one of a hundred different movies. In the comics, Mega-City One itself is a character: its inhabitants, its slang, its architecture. Mega-City One doesn’t look or feel much like Mega-City One, particularly in the film’s beginning, which is all important for setting the tone and selling the locale.
Do not bother springing for the 3-D version of this film, though. This movie has one of the worst conversions to 3-D since Clash of the Titans.
There’s no crime here, but I think this character is going to the cubes for a another decade or more before someone tries again to put the definitive translation of Judge Dredd on screen.