When I watched Sylvester Stallone's 1995 version of Judge Dredd for the first time, I found it tedious, stupid, and an insult to the character and stories from 2000AD. When I watched it a second and final time, it was during a party and the sound was turned way down so people could talk and whatnot. And you know what? Visually, it's not that bad – it's actually a better film with no sound.
Unfortunately, it's still a gigantic piece of crap – despite a Wikipedia plot summary that doesn't sound bad at all. I don't know what happened between the conceptualization and the screen, but it has tainted the concept of Judge Dredd as a movie property in America for nearly twenty years now.
If there is any justice, Director Pete Travis and Writer Alex Garland's 2012 reinterpretation, Dredd 3D, will erase that previous atrocity from the historical record and supplant memories of Stallone taking off his helmet and teaming up with comedian Rob Schneider with Karl Urban's snarling, faceless Judge Dredd taking Olivia Thirlby's earnest and sympathetic rookie Judge Anderson into the field for the first time.
I have only a passing knowledge of Judge Dredd in the comics. What I know, I love, and while I've only made it through the first of the four Judge Dredd Case Files collections on my shelf, I know what's coming thanks to the internet and informative columns like our own Zack Davisson's 35 Years of Judge Dredd. I know that shit gets apocalyptic real quick and Urban's Dredd is a film world where I can see all of that playing out.
Hell, it's pretty apocalyptic from the get-go and is, quite frankly, everything a fan could want from a Judge Dredd film. Even Dredd co-creator John Wagner thinks so. Of course, he worked as a creative consultant on the film, so it damned well should be pure Dredd.
I've racked my brain for something, anything, that was cringe-worthy or that would make me hesitate to share this film with people who had no idea who or what Dredd was, and I found nothing. This is a Hard-R, ultraviolent bloodbath of a film and that's exactly what it should be. It won't be to everyone's tastes, but that's also exactly what it should be. This is dark, fascistic, and brutal.
This is Judge Dredd.
The story is simple enough, and unfortunately similar to another action masterpiece, The Raid: Redemption, with Dredd and Anderson trapped inside a 200-story slum tower block controlled by world-weary drug kingpin, Ma-Ma, played to perfection by Lena Headey. It's Anderson's first day and she is being evaluated by Dredd in the field to determine whether or not she gets to wear the badge for real. When they capture one of Ma-Ma's henchmen, Kay (The Wire's own Avon Barksdale, Wood Harris), rather than execute him, Ma-Ma locks down the building and orders her troops to kill the Judges to keep Kay from providing information about her and her drug operation.
Then the killing really begins.
The film was shot digitally and in 3D in Cape Town, South Africa over 13 weeks and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – working in 3D for the first time – did outstanding work integrating the 3D into horrifying and bleakly beautiful sets. This is a gorgeous film from start to finish. And the 3D effects, particularly during the POV shots of Slo-Mo users (Ma-Ma's empire lynchpin – a drug that slows down your perception of time passing to 1% of normal), are breathtaking.
The colors are over-saturated and the emphasis on splashing water, breaking glass, and bodies exploding as bullets tear through them utilizes the 3D in transfixing, almost hallucinogenic ways.
Paul Leonard-Morgan's score is a delight. It is simple, yet effective, hearkening back to classic John Carpenter scores with a more violent edge. And then when actual songs are used, they are perfectly matched to the situations, creating a believable sonic layer to the film that never distracts or seems to be lobbying for a marketing angle.
Plus, it includes Matt Berry's song, "Snuffbox"! Yes!
The fact that there was some controversy over the filmmaking during post-production turns out to have been a non-starter. According to reports, Travis was locked out of the editing process due to creative disagreements, and Garland was handed the reins. Garland's editing contribution was so substantial that he could have claimed a co-directing credit, but instead, he and Travis released a statement claiming they had agreed on this method of collaboration before the production had even started.
But even before post, Garland was all over this project, having a hand in the costume and set design, working with the visual effects supervisor Jon Thum on the Slo-Mo visual concepts, and even providing direction for Urban's performance on-set. It's a strange situation, and if there's a sequel, I fully expect it will be handled entirely by Garland.
But will it get a sequel?
I sincerely hope so. The ideas that Garland has laid out in interviews demonstrate a fantastic sense of scope and ramping up of vision and world-building. Dredd 3D is mainly Garland dipping his toe into the world of Mega-City One and wanting desperately to leap into the deep end. It shows a lot of restraint in an attempt not to overwhelm or go too large the first time out. As such, if there were any criticism I would raise to this film, it's that we don't get to see a lot of the world they've established.
However, at the same time, the film as-is works as a microcosm of the entirety of Mega-City One. More would be overkill and the story is tightly constructed with no fat. For an initial foray into the world of Judge Dredd, this is damned near perfect.
Garland says that a $50 million take in the US would pretty much ensure a sequel, but with an opening weekend of just over $6 million (plus a little over $4 million in the UK) I don't know how possible that's going to be. I'm going to go out on a limb here and blame the taint of Stallone's version for any shortcomings.
But this is nothing like what's come before. This is like comparing Batman Begins with Batman and Robin. This is a wiping clean of the slate and giving the fans and the characters what they deserve.
If you love science fiction; if you love action; if you love Judge Dredd; it doesn't get any better than this.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.