Funny how we can't praise one movie without bashing another. Or how we can't praise the current iteration of a character/franchise without smearing the reputation of those that came before.
Case in point: Judge Dredd, the anti-hero from the pages of British comics weekly 2000 AD. Patrolling the sprawling future metropolis of Mega-City One, never cracking a smile from beneath his helmet (we haven’t seen his face since the strip premiered in the 70s), and empowered to dispense justice on the spot, Dredd is one of comics’ greatest icons. In its 30-odd-years-and-counting existence, Judge Dredd has covered about every genre imaginable, from futuristic action to social drama to wacky comedy to epic horror. It was only natural that the strip would eventually be adapted for the screen.
The first attempt, starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, hit in 1995. Many fans who had been keen for a Dredd flick had issues with Stallone, not just because he's Stallone, but because he removed his helmet. Many felt that putting a face on the character betrayed him, and further felt that imposing a physical presence though Stallone was and is, he simply wasn’t/isn’t Dredd.
And yet, like a Shakespeare tragedy with a bad actor in the lead but a solid supporting cast, there was plenty for fans to enjoy in the margins. The movie went out of its way to capture many of the iconic occurrences and characters of Dredd’s sizable universe: Chief Judge Fargo (played by Max von Sydow, no less) resigns in disgrace, taking the Long Walk into the wasteland outside the city; Judge Hershey (often Dredd’s conscience in the comics) is given dimension and grace by Diane Lane; and the murderous outlanders in the Angel Clan are also vividly, accurately realized, right down to the dial on the Mean Machine’s head. Hell, the movie went OUTSIDE Dredd’s milieu and into the pages of 2000 A.D.’s other worlds to recast the ABC Warrior robot Hammerstein (gorgeously realized via animatronic effects) as one of its many colorful villains.
And yet Stallone’s admittedly distracting presence at the center of the movie remained most fans’ abiding memory of it. Which is part of what made the recently released DREDD such a pleasure for those fans. The title role was played here by Karl Urban (previously seen in his downright uncanny performance as Dr. McCoy in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek). Fans were immediately reassured by Urban’s initial statements that he was taking the role quite seriously (being a fan himself), and assured viewers that, as in the comics, Dredd would never, ever remove his helmet.
Once the movie arrived on our screens, fans rejoiced: Urban WAS the stoic, unstoppable force for justice they knew from the comics. (And Olivia Thirlby was quickly noted to be equally as impressive as Dredd’s more humane, less experienced cohort Psi-Judge Anderson.) Limited somewhat by its budget, the movie focused on gritty urban action, reducing Mega-City One to a single imposing city block. This strategy and the ensuing gritty action were familiar to action connoisseurs from recent fare such as THE RAID: REDEMPTION and even ATTACK THE BLOCK, and worked remarkably well as an evocation of Dredd’s world.
Longtime Dredd fan that I am, I was just as pleased by this film as any other member of its smallish but passionate cult. In addition to the virtues named above, its use of 3-D was novel and thrilling, and its pedigree was unmistakably Dreddian. And yet I wished we’d been able to see a bit more of the decadence and desperation of the ’95 Mega-City One. Though DREDD was deemed “the perfect Judge Dredd film”, I felt a truly perfect Dredd film would bring aspects of the ’95 edition. But any such arguments were quickly swept aside by fans who went out of their way to slam the earlier movie as a means of expressing their love for the new one.
Perhaps the world of comics is more forgiving than that of movies. After all, Dredd has gone through a number of writers and countless artists, all of whom have brought their strengths and perspectives to bear on the character. Perhaps it’s because with Dredd in the comics you only have to wait a week for a new interpretation to come by; thousands of stories in comics form versus two cinematic adaptations perhaps breeds more patience and breadth on the comics front. And maybe there’s just a vocal minority of cinephiles who are simply incapable of praising one movie without bashing another.
Regrettable though this tendency is, I am of a piece with the rest of the Dreddcult in hoping that a sequel does eventually manifest. Urban is no doubt ready to take on Judge Death, who’d look magnificent in this new, grittily urban MC-1.
In the meantime, where the hell's my ABC Warriors movie?