Mega-City One may be well and truly big enough for the both of these Judge Dredd flicks, but let’s see how kind the years have been to the old Judge and whether this new, upstart Dredd steals the criminal-slaying spotlight.
The latest screen incarnation of the masked, futuristic supercop comes packaged in a brutally refreshing action film. At the helm of 2012’s Dredd is Pete Travis, Vantage Point, with a screenplay by Alex Garland, writer of the excellent 28 Days Later, who takes a fair amount of inspiration from the source material. While the story itself is simple, the film has style in spades, mixing traditional action with some cool toys and a ton of filters. With a lot of bangs and a few whimpers it’s all over pretty quickly, which is good considering the film really has only one location – a gigantic residential tower. Dredd and his rookie partner get trapped inside after making investigations into a local crime lord who has something to do with a new brand of narcotics. Yes, if you’re wondering, there is a little similarity to The Raid: Redemption here.
As par for the course with these compact, modern, action films, there isn’t a lot of time given for the characters to grow. Fortunately, the Judge Dredd character comes equipped with his own gritty, dystopian universe and uncompromising attitude. Amongst the crowded dirty streets and Mega-Block slums, the filmmakers have done a good job bringing this world to life, and keeping it believable. You do genuinely feel sorry for anyone living in these grim conditions. They’ve also thrown in a bunch of sci-fi jargon to keep things in line with Dredd’s sinister future, where the Hall of Justice is the only thing keeping the city from tearing itself apart. A couple of visual nods to 1995’s Judge Dredd can be found throughout as well, along with a bunch of Dredd related posters and graffiti.
As the titular judge, The Lord of the Rings‘ Karl Urban gets to play it cool as the strong, silent type with the occasional badarse one liner – some prompting laughter, others fist pumps. His character is explored just enough to know where he stands, and that is strictly on the side of the law. His law. Or at least the one created and enforced by the city’s justice department, which clearly doesn’t subscribe to Montesquiue’s system of separation of power. He is a real hardline cop who takes his role beyond seriously. Unfortunately you can’t take Urban that seriously as he is hidden by the costume the entire time. Probably not the Hollywood-baiting role he was hoping for, but he does look pretty kickarse.
Olivia Thirlby’s judge in training, Anderson, gets much more interesting development, and is the only properly drawn character in the film. As such it’s more a film about her than Dredd – she is the vulnerable one and her actions are what drives the plot. It turns out Anderson is a ‘mutant’ with psychic powers allowing her to read and enter minds. This comes in handy many times, although the narrative angle that this is also a burden is underplayed. We do, however, get some wonderfully bizarre scenes of mental confrontations as she psychically attacks and defends in the line of duty.
With its basic plot, the focus of Dredd is definitely on style, which it oozes. The narcotic Slo-Mo, in particular, provides a great excuse for some impressive sequences. The hypercolour super-slow-motion shots of users on the drug break up the otherwise bleak, grimy world, and steer the pace of scenes away from the stale slow-motion of traditional action. Kudos to the writer for creating a story device the director can really play with stylistically. The industrial based score, by Paul Leonard-Morgan who worked in similar fashion on the brilliant Limitless, really shines within these scenes and throughout as well. Stylistic decisions seem to drive the whole production – wether in action scenes, complete with smoke, fire, and fluoro lighting, or to keep up interest in the downtime as we flick to watching characters through the orange, pixelated security feed. Admittedly there is a lot of soft focus and some questionable blood effects, but even these technical missteps seem a part of the package.
Above all, Dredd is a film that impresses the senses with cleverly intense action built on strikingly contrasting visuals and sound. Be warned, there is a decent amount of gore and violence to go with this, and not a lot of story. However, much like The Kramer, no matter how loathsome or offensively brutal it is, you want to look away. Actually on that note, there’s a pretty cool Seinfeld reference in there amongst the concrete blocks.
So how does the new, grainy Dredd stack up against that semi-classic 90s action flick Judge Dredd? The first thing you’ll notice is that the latter’s production design, which was cool at the time, hasn’t aged that well – much like the Batman films of the time. Actually there are a lot of similarities in the look and feel of those films, to the point where the final battle in Judge Dredd has this cold, steam-shooting, lab environment which seems to pre-empt good old Mr Freeze’s film incarnation. Hollywood was clearly going through a phase here, but I digress. The important point is that Judge does have a pretty cool, dystopian, post-apocalyptic world itself – slightly awkward uniforms and plastic cars notwithstanding. It presents a similar picture of society’s degradation to that of the newer Dredd, although it takes more of a Bladerunner style sci-fi approach – only with less neo-noir goodness.
The story of Judge Dredd, complete with Sylvester Stallone as the legendary cop, is kind of an amalgamation of early stories from the Dredd universe. The screenplay was in good hands, with Terminator writer William Wisher on board, but didn’t impress too many fans. It starts with a little James Earl Jones narration to get us up to speed, no complaints there, and the good news is that the Judge is introduced and developed in a more rounded way than in Dredd. Here, facing a conviction for a murder he didn’t commit, Dredd is a little more vulnerable and requires the help of the lovely Diane Lane, Judge Hershey. Lane is a pretty good foil for Stallone in that she brings some of the sensitivity and subtlety he is missing, and for some reason I believe her character. She also packs one hell of a headbutt.
The formula of Dredd backed by a young, female partner was clearly successful enough to be kept for 2012’s Dredd. Although, the new guard decided not to keep the comic relief guy, Rob Schneider’s Fergee, which may have been a wise idea. That said, he does play a part developing Dredd’s character, something which the new iteration was lacking. Fortunately, both films feature pretty cool antagonists. Stallone’s nemeses are his brother Rico, Armand Assante, and the bad guy from Beverley Hills Cop II, while Urban’s assignment is to take out the wonderfully psychotic Ma-ma, a scary looking Lena Headey.
What the original Judge Dredd cannot match is the ultra slick style of the newer Dredd. To be fair, the latter benefits from being just that, with access to new technology, particularly visible in the super-slow-motion sequences. While Dredd embraces a more niche style of pure action – gritty, gory and bleak – Judge Dredd takes the more mainstream approach. It is clearly a product of its time, again the 90s Batman parallels arise. While the Bladerunner vibe is cool, the newer Dredd really wins on the style front with its lurid action and production.
So which Judge truly upholds the LAAAAWWWW? The old Judge Dredd‘s narrative develops the character much more, and while it may have alienated some of his fan base, it is technically a more interesting plot, one that humanises the Judge a bit. If you can get past Stallone’s Dredd removing his helmet then you will probably have fun with the movie. Stallone himself is honestly a bit more fun to watch than Urban as the top cop, he just seems to enjoy himself, despite the fact he looks to have a stick up his arse at times. Lane and Thirlby are a much more even match as the partners, although Thirlby’s character is much more intriguing. As far as production goes, the uberstylish Dredd takes the cake, and does over most of its contemporaries. While the films come from different places with different focuses, despite springing from the same source, the question of which one is better isn’t too hard to answer. On one hand, Judge Dredd is a little clichéd but has entertainment value as a decent popcorn sci-fi, bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia. On the other, Dredd delivers bigger and better kicks and is a blast to watch if you don’t mind the excessive violence – puns intended.