Dredd is set in the future where nuclear war has forced Americans to live in three enormous walled mega cities. The police have disbanded and in their place are the Judges - law enforcers who can execute people on sight. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a veteran officer is assigned the job of assessing Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with psychic abilities, and takes her on a routine call out to Peach Trees - a 200 story block of flats. However, when they get there the drug lord ruler of Peach Trees, Ma Ma (Lena Headey), locks down the building and orders her men to execute the judges.
The first thing to say is that, in case you didn't know, Dredd is an adaptation of a very popular UK comic strip from 2000AD which has run since 1977 (admittedly, it popularity is mostly confined to the UK). It's an anarchic, violent and often witty comic strip that predominantly likes to take pop shots at America society and culture. Alex Garland's small scale script is certainly violent, occasionally witty but feels distinctly lacking in anarchy. Urban does a great job as Dredd, channeling a young Clint Eastwood and does a heck of good job consider he's only allowed to act with his body, chin and voice. He's ably supported by Thirlby who more than holds her own as Anderson, and is given the bulk of the character journey for the film. Headey as well, gives a spirited punk-inspired performance as Ma Ma (though arguably she never seems really terrifying like a good bad guy should).
For the most part, I really like the way the film was put together. The Judge costumes look like proper military/SWAT armour. To create the sprawling metropolis of Mega City One they just photoshopped Johannesburg and made it stretch for miles. And all the CGI work is made up of subtle background elements that really create a credible vibe for the city. Dredd is clearly taking a page out of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight films, smoothing out the more outlandish bits of the comic book and making them as realistic as possible. For me, the problem was that the story just felt too small. I can see that the makers have had to think carefully about the script in order to accommodate their $45 million budget but the film still felt too narrow, too "on-rails". There's very few interesting subplots or developments after the initial story is set up.
Also it never feels like Dredd and Anderson are ever in any real danger - unlike John McClane in Die Hard or Rama in The Raid. Both judges have superior weapons and gadgets that get them out of most situations very quickly. As the trailer lays out, they have to get to the top of 200 story block of flats but it never seems like much of slog. In fact, they use an elevator to get up most of the floors. I'm all for seeing a "day in the life" of Judge Dredd but I think they could have made some more dramatic story choices. Or broken up the action a bit more, the problem was that the story seems quite epic - wow, they've got to get up 200 floors - but it's actually quite dull visually, given that each floor looks exactly the same as the last.
As noted early, Dredd is also a 3D movie which I felt was a bit of an unnecessary choice. There are some very cool slow motion bits throughout the film of people being shot but these were already highly saturated and stylised (great work by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), the 3D felt a bit like overkill. I know it sounds like I'm quite negative on the film but I did enjoy it - it's certainly a three star movie - I just expected a bit more from the film. Given that the performances and costume work (not to mention the source material) were all pretty awesome, it's a shame they couldn't have been housed in a more engaging film.
Okay, and now on to Judge Dredd, the 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone. This got a lot of backlash on release from fans and non-fans alike. Fans hated the fact that Stallone's Dredd not only takes his helmet off but also kisses his colleague Hershey - two things that the comic book character never did. They also didn't like the film's mostly comedic tone. While non-fans complained of deja vu as the film came out within two years of Demolition Man, another Stallone film which saw him play a cop who chases a psychotic criminal through a futuristic city while using excessive force.
Despite these criticisms I still enjoy the film quite a lot. I was never that bothered that Dredd took his helmet off* and yeah, I agree that Stallone should have picked either this OR Demolition Man because the material IS too similar. Still, it's a fun, robust adventure movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. Also, unlike Dredd this film does take a lot of the iconography of the comic book and transplant it verbatim. The costume has it's cheesy eagle shoulder pads, the cannibalistic Angel family are featured and even the main robot is taken from the 2000 AD comic (though admittedly, from another strip ABC Warriors).
Judge Dredd sees Stallone play the titular character, a no-nonsense futuristic cop who is framed for a murder he didn't commit by his twin brother Rico (Armand Assante). Despite the best efforts of his partner Judge Hershey (a smokin' hot Diane Lane) he's sent to off to prison but his transport plane is shot down over the wastelands. Here he's forced to team up with small time criminal Fergee (Rob Schneider) to break back into the city and stop Rico from taking over control of the city. I know it's a little unfair comparing the two films. Judge Dredd had the advantage that it had a huge star in the lead, a $90 million budget and came out first. A lot of people have suggested that Dredd did poorly because people still remembered this one being a flop.
What I enjoyed about the film is that it retains some of the wacked out comedy of the comic strip that was absent from Dredd. I know Rob Schneider's a very annoying actor but, in this, I thought he was okay. He's there to poke fun at how po-faced and serious Judge Dredd is and I think he made a good and appropriate counterfoil. I still really enjoy his introduction in the film as he takes a shuttle bus through the city and tries to spot where he's going to get relocated only to realise the "Heavenly Haven" apartment blocks he's assigned to is an absolute warzone. And then gets arrested 10 minutes later.
Also, the set work was brilliant. Okay, a lot of it is obviously a soundstage but it's so huge and domineering - a parody of Ridley Scott cityscapes in Blade Runner. Sure, the costumes were questionable (spandex jumpsuits with a cod piece? Really?) but they were also really well designed and realised. They weren't really meant to be realistic, this wasn't a realistic movie. The cast is brilliant as well - Jurgen Prochnow, Max Von Sydow, Diane Lane. Stallone was a decent choice to play Dredd. It's kind of a catch 22 in that the film wouldn't have had the budget it had without him, but with him it ensure that it was going to have to be a film about a Judge Dredd who took off his helmet for the most part. No movie executive would fund a $100 million film with a star's face permanently obscured.
Basically, Judge Dredd was a compromised adaptation from the outset but I still think it's a pretty enjoyable action film regardless. It has a huge scope, weird characters, plot twists, hover bike chases, shoot outs, fights with robots. Call me a 10 year old, but this is the kind of stuff I love watching. There are some flaws in this one as well though. I hate the horrible bit where Hershey works out Dredd was cloned in a lab by removing photoshop layers from his baby photo(!) and how ever many times I watch it I still can't believe they cut out the sequences with all the clones coming to life at the end. That could have been an amazing fight sequence! By contrast Dredd is, tonally, a more faithful adaptation but it fails to do very much interesting with its protagonist.
Anyway, I guess I should wrap up. I liked both these movies. I'm not one for star rating but Judge Dredd maybe gets 3 and half stars while Dredd gets 3. Judge Dredd has the slight advantage in that I've watched it 20 more times than Dredd and given that I was 12 when it came out I maybe view it with rose-tinted glasses. I'll likely give the new film another go later on DVD. I think one of the problems that both films faced is that the comic is deceptively multi-layered. It's satire/action/comedy/horror/sci-fi which borrows from lots of other works; Mad Max, Death Race 2000, Dirty Harry, Blade Runner to name a few. In a lot of ways it's a melting pot and in trying to adapt it you can only really pull out two or three major threads, you always lose something important.
* And before you ask, yes I have read Dredd for many years - I'm a big fan of the early stories: The Cursed Earth, Day the Law Died, Judge Child, Block Mania etc. Anything drawn by Brian Bolland. I kind of fell out of love with it when it turned colour in the 90s.