In 1976, when writer/editor Pat Mills began work on developing the British comic-book anthology series 2000 AD, he needed some help creating characters for stories that would entice readers. So he turned to his former writing partner, John Wagner, for help. Wagner had written an earlier comic-book series called One-Eyed Jack, about a Dirty Harry-style cop who would do whatever it takes to get the job done, and he decided to create a similar character, only this one would be taken to the extreme in its portrayal of a cop who was tough as nails, and who was ruthless and uncompromising in going after criminals. With the help of the late, great artist Carlos Ezquerra (whose ideas for the character’s appearance were partly inspired by David Carradine as Frankenstein in Death Race 2000), Judge Dredd was born. It didn’t take too long for him to become popular with readers, as he would soon go on to appear in nearly every issue of 2000 AD before making his debut in America with his own comic book in 1983.
Before X-Men opened in theaters in 2000 and convinced Hollywood that they should focus on making comic-book movies again, Judge Dredd got his very own feature film that starred Sylvester Stallone and was released in 1995. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the success that it could’ve and should’ve been. The reviews were negative, the box-office numbers were a disappointment, and fans of the original comics were not happy at all with what they saw. Especially the fact that Dredd was seen without the helmet that prevented people from seeing what he actually looked like, which was one of the things that Dredd the comic character was best known for.
It wasn’t until 2012 that there would be another live-action adaptation of Judge Dredd. That film, simply titled Dredd (or Dredd 3D, since it was released post-Avatar and jumped on the 3D bandwagon like many other films during that time) was released in theaters on September 21, 2012.
The year is 2080, and after a nuclear war that turned nearly all of America into an irradiated, uninhabitable wasteland known as the Cursed Earth, there are now very few places where humans can actually live. One of those places is Mega-City One, a metropolis that stretches from Boston all the way to Washington, D.C., holds 800 million residents, and has over 17,000 crimes reported on a daily basis. The only existing line of defense that keeps Mega-City One from being completely torn apart are the Judges: law enforcement officers whose duties are those of a police officer, a juror, and a judge, and who are permitted to immediately carry out sentencing on criminals and kill them instantly if necessary. One of the deadliest and best-known Judges in Mega-City One is Joseph Dredd (Karl Urban), who is assigned by his Chief Judge to escort and supervise a rookie Judge named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), whose powerful telepathic abilities have placed her under consideration to join the Justice Department despite her poor test scores, and decide whether or not she has what it takes to be a Street Judge.
Dredd and Anderson’s first assignment together involves investigating three gruesome homicides at the Peach Trees, a 200-story-high housing project that is ruled by Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal (Lena Headey), a former sex worker-turned-criminal queenpin whose gang rules over all of Peach Trees, and who is responsible for the three homicides being investigated, as they were drug dealers who made the mistake of working in her territory. The two Judges end up taking down several members of Ma-Ma’s crew and decide to bring in one of her lieutenants, Kay (Wood Harris), for interrogation. Because Kay knows too much about Ma-Ma’s operations, and the fact that she is responsible for the manufacturing and citywide distribution of a new drug called Slo-Mo (which causes the user to perceive time at only 1 percent of its normal rate), she decides to prevent Dredd and Anderson from leaving with Kay by literally locking down all of Peach Trees with its own blast shield doors to prevent anyone from coming in or going out. When Ma-Ma uses the building-wide P.A. system to let everyone know that she wants the Judges dead and will kill anyone who helps them, it’s up to Dredd and Anderson to stay alive and stay hidden from Ma-Ma and her dozens of clan members until they can find a way to escape.
(FYI: As someone who watched and really loved the sitcom Raising Hope, which featured the late and legendary Cloris Leachman as “Maw-Maw” Thompson, I admit that it’s slightly difficult to watch Dredd and not have that character come to mind whenever Ma-Ma’s name is mentioned in the film. If there is an alternate reality where Dredd is a film that exists, but with Cloris Leachman playing Ma-Ma the ruthless gang leader, I’d love to see it.)
Directed by Pete Travis and written by Alex Garland (the same Alex Garland who helmed such cinematic mind-trips as Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Men), Dredd mainly had two goals upon its release: to be a solid work of entertainment that would impress audiences, and to be a better, more accurate adaptation of its source material than what came before.
Much like the title character using his trusty Lawgiver, Dredd hits both of those targets, and does it very effectively. The action scenes are brutal and impressive (if you ever wanted to know what it looks like when someone’s cheekbones are torn apart by a bullet in slow motion, Dredd is the movie for you), the cinematography and production design are incredible in creating a Mega-City One that looks and feels like hell on earth (The visual effects that convey what taking Slo-Mo looks and feels like are certainly nothing to scoff at), and both the writing and direction erase any possible doubts that Mega-City One really is hell on earth (When Dredd informs the Justice Department that there are dead bodies that need to be picked up for recycling, it doesn’t take much to figure out how those dead bodies are recycled in a world where irradiated land makes farming impossible). Both Travis and Garland do a great job in how they make the audience care about Dredd and Anderson, as we see them do whatever they can in order to survive and live to fight another day.
In one of the final scenes of Manhunter (which is best known for not only being one of writer-director Michael Mann’s earliest films, but for being the first film to feature Hannibal Lecter, who was portrayed by Brian Cox), FBI agent/profiler Will Graham (William L. Peterson) is with his friend and colleague, Jack Crawford (the late Dennis Farina), as he discusses the killer and what his motivations might be for murdering entire families, which causes Crawford to start wondering if he actually feels sorry for the killer. To which Will says yes, and that he sympathizes with the innocent child who was abused by his loved ones and turned into a monster, but has no sympathy for the adult who would go on to use that history as an excuse to kill entire families in order to live out his own fantasies, and is capable of carrying both conflicting thoughts at the same time. That is what comes to mind when it comes to Ma-Ma and everything she does to maintain her supremacy at the top of the criminal food chain.
It’s easy to sympathize with her when discovering her backstory and realizing that she was disfigured by her pimp and took her revenge by literally biting his penis off before killing him. That sympathy ends immediately when you see what she’s willing to do to remain on top, and how little she truly cares about anyone or anything. Even if it means using three gigantic mini-guns to spray devastating amounts of gunfire that destroys every apartment and tenant she sees just so she can try to kill Dredd. Much like Marlo Stanfield from The Wire, Ma-Ma clearly doesn’t seem to really enjoy or care that much about her crown, but only cares about the fact that she has it, and that someone would dare step to her and try to take it away.
Cassandra Anderson clearly has a lot to learn about what it takes to be a Judge as she spends the entire day being thrown into the deep end of the pool as part of her education. (Or as Dredd so memorably put it: “It’s all the deep end.”) And she quickly becomes aware that Dredd is not the easiest person to impress when it comes to doing the job. But impress him is what she does, and not just with her psychic abilities and her skills in close-quarters combat, but also by her compassion and her willingness to carry out justice instead of enforcing the law without question, even when there is no guarantee of her becoming a Judge if she survives. (One of Anderson’s, and Olivia Thirlby’s, best moments in the film is when she and Dredd briefly make their way outdoors near the Peach Trees skate ramp, and there’s a brief look of hope and desperation on her face as she looks out at the vast landscape of Mega-City One before accepting that she has no choice but to turn around, head back inside with Dredd, and continue her battle with Ma-Ma and her crew.)
When she confronts Clan Techie (Domnhall Gleeson, who is terrific at conveying both his efficiency at hacking technology on Ma-Ma’s behalf, and how Ma-Ma’s very presence scares the absolute sh-t out of him) and realizes that he’s a victim of Ma-Ma’s violence whose cooperation with her has been completely forced, and she chooses to let him go instead of arresting him, her explanation to Dredd is what convinces him that she is the type of Judge that Mega-City One needs. Despite Anderson’s kindness and her lack of experience, anyone who is foolish enough to underestimate her and what she’s capable of soon realizes that they’re doing so at their own peril.
Judge Dredd is tough, ruthless at times, and takes his job very seriously. But he isn’t bloodthirsty, trigger-happy, or stupid, and it’s why he remains one of the best Judges in all of Mega-City One, why he’s the best choice to be Anderson’s mentor, and especially why he’s able to quickly realize that four of his fellow Judges have turned against him on behalf of Ma-Ma. He clearly believes in the law and that it needs to be enforced, but is also open-minded enough to know that not everything is simply black-and-white. After witnessing his fellow Judges betray everything that they’re supposed to represent, it makes a greater impression on Dredd to see Anderson’s treatment of Clan Techie and hearing her reasons for it. The last thing that Mega-City One needs is another Judge who thinks with their wallet or trigger finger instead of their brains, and that (combined with Anderson proving herself in the heat of battle) is what wins him over and convinces him to overlook Anderson’s test scores and give her the passing grade that she deserves.
I also have to give plenty of credit to Karl Urban for what he’s able to do with his performance as Dredd, despite the fact that he spends the entire film with half his face covered by his helmet. He not only nails Dredd’s guttural and intimidating voice (When Dredd finally utters his catchphrase, “I am the law,” it will send chills down your spine while still making you smile from ear to ear), but is somehow able to convey his growing fondness for Anderson as the film progresses. Even when the two of them are simply riding in an elevator and looking at each other as he patches up her wounds.
Despite receiving mostly positive reviews from critics, Dredd was not a success at the box office, taking in only $41 million worldwide on a $45-50 million budget. However, it has gained a devoted following from people who have discovered the film on Blu-ray/DVD as well as cable and streaming. (The film also went on to make over $21 million in Blu-ray/DVD sales since its release) Though it seems less likely as time goes on that there will be a sequel to Dredd to open in movie theaters (the closest there is to an actual sequel are the comic-book miniseries Dredd: Final Judgement and Dredd: Underbelly), or that the rumors of a Judge Dredd: Mega-City One television series will become reality, it doesn’t stop fans from asking and hoping for it, despite Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys keeping Karl Urban busy these days. (Urban himself has said that he’d love to reprise the role, and that even if he doesn’t get to play Dredd again, he’d still love to see Judge Dredd and its additional stories adapted onscreen)
As fun and exciting as Dredd is, as much as it evoke comparisons to such classic works as Die Hard, The Raid, and even the Metal Gear Solid series, as much as it earns its R rating a thousand times over, it’s also impossible to watch without wondering whether this is yet another example of copaganda that makes law enforcement look like a positive force and not like the destructive entity that can and often does ruin other people’s lives without hesitation or regret. The original Judge Dredd comics were and still are well-known for brilliantly satirizing the legal systems in both the U.S. of A and in the United Kingdom, and how tyrannical and over-the-top some officers of the law can often be in how they choose to enforce them. Though Dredd occasionally hints at those same ideas, it isn’t nearly as satirical as the comics themselves. Is Dredd someone who should even be considered a hero when his job allows and demands him to literally be judge, jury, and executioner? (The fact that we hear Dredd utter ED-209’s infamous warning, “You have twenty seconds to comply” from RoboCop, another sci-fi film about unconventional law enforcement in a crime-ridden metropolis, to several members of Ma-Ma’s crew before executing them in a gunfight is not an accident.) Can Anderson be viewed as one of the “good cops” because her approach to being a Judge differs from Dredd’s, and because she’s willing to turn in her badge because it might be seen as a weakness instead of a strength? Does any of this even matter when the city these Judges are trying to protect is completely overrun with crime with seemingly no light whatsoever at the end of the tunnel? These are all questions that the audience is left to think about, and whether or not they affect your ability to watch and enjoy Dredd is entirely up to them and to you.
But if you simply want to sit back and enjoy some bloodshed as Billy Butcher goes toe-to-toe with Avon Barksdale and Cersei Lannister while General Hux is sitting on the sidelines, then Dredd will most definitely give you your money’s worth.
Dredd is now streaming on Peacock and on Amazon Prime Video.
Image sources (in order of posting): Lionsgate Films, Rebellion Developments