It was to the caw and flap of carrion birds fighting over a rotting pig's head just outside the window that I first entered the world of Judge Dredd.
The location was the common area of a college dorm suite shared by some friends of mine. The decomposing animal head had been brought back as a drunken trophy from an on-campus pig roast by one of the suite-mates and plunked down on the relocated (that is stolen) picnic table the boys had positioned outside the ground-floor windows.
The issues of Judge Dredd were scattered on the common-area coffee table, where I found them one Saturday afternoon. A perfect time and place to enter the nihilistic world of Megablocks and Judges.
This was an embarrassingly long time ago, I must admit, before the perfect Judge Dredds (in my mind) had entered the scene. (That would be Jason Statham, Clive Owen or perhaps Gerald Butler.) When the name Sly Stallone came up, all of us nearly barfed. "Worst idea ever," someone opined.
So when a Dredd movie was finally made in 1995, who was cast as the coolest badass in the history of graphic media?
Fucking Stallone. And guess what? He sucked. And the movie he was in sucked too, because not only did they inflict Stallone on us as our beloved hero, they gave half the fucking movie to Rob Schneider. I swear I have never prayed harder for a secondary character to be brutally killed off than Schneider's "Fergee."
Worse, writer Steven E. deSouza, who gave us the screenplay structural paradigm Die Hard, just didn't get it. You could not more not get it than deSouza didn't get it. So desperate was he (and one could smell the "we need the script NOW, deSouza" vibe a mile away) that he fell back on the same lame "hero framed for a crime he didn't commit" plot used in Ricochet. He also stole a "cops getting murdered" montage from some other early 1990's action picture, I just can't remember which one, though Lethal Weapon 2 or 3 comes to mind.
I have this theory. Your movie is your script and your actors. Everything else is window dressing. How many great films have you seen that had little but a solid script and great actors? (Chuck and Buck comes to mind. Or The Sacrifice.) How many movies have you seen that had every huge set-piece and special effect imaginable but still sucked ass? (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, anyone?). So a bad script combined with the curse of Stallone and Schneider doomed Judge Dredd. The film bombed. Rightfully so. Fuck you, Rob Schneider.
Good thing, because the movie is pretty goddamn terrific.
The movie's greatness can be summed up in one sentence: Dredd never takes his helmet off. That's right, sports fans, we never see Karl Urban's eyes in the entire movie. All we see of him is neck, chin and nose.
That tells you right there the filmmakers were eager to stay true to the source material. We never see Dredd's entire face. It's all part of the power of the character and obviously something that a superstar like Stallone couldn't stomach, while a lesser-known actor like Urban ran with. And kudos to Urban for having the balls to do it and not being a whiny little asshole and insisting that in just one scene Dredd takes off his helmet while reminiscing about a puppy he once owned. You know, to humanize him a little.
Equally compelling is the movies tone, which captures the dark brutality of the dystopian future perfectly. Kudos to the production design team who nailed it on a slim 50 million dollar budget. (There's this really depressing mall near where I live which does little except house the Department of Motor Vehicles and a few, tired, on the edge of bankruptcy stores. Dredd's future looks like that mall.)
But it's Judge Dredd who is the star here, and the film presents him faithfully. The plot revolves around a new drug sweeping Mega City. When Dredd and his rookie, psychic partner (who's on field assessment to see if she has what it takes to become a judge) are sent into Peach Trees, one of the most dangerous megablocks in the city, to investigate three murders, they're trapped inside by the Ma Ma, the local drug lord, and targeted for execution. Even with exits and communications shut down, even with an army of bad guys coming at them from every direction, Dredd never loses his cool and never stops the assessment of his rookie, always asking her what to do in each new situation they encounter.
Dredd never shows a hint of doubt or fear. Because Dredd knows he will win. The power of his will is that strong.
Which is the strange, upbeat lesson of the film. While it wallows in brutality, gallows humor and cynicism, Dredd also tells us that those who refuse to give up, who believe in themselves will prevail against the most horrific odds.
As compelling as the hero is the villain played by Lena Headey (Cersei on Game of Thrones.) I'm not sure how Ms. Headey ended up playing so many psychotic murdering bitches but... oh, wait. I do know. Because she's so goddamn good at it. Headey's Ma Ma is worth the price of admission alone. She's as bad as bad gets, yet calm quiet and strangely sympathetic. Despite all the awful things she does, you kind of like her. Quite the feat and a perfect illustration of script and actors, script and actors.
Then there's the visuals, which even on the small screen are impressive. An entire plot point, the drug Ma Ma's clan is selling, is designed simply to allow for some extravagant 3-D effects. They're so cool that Dredd is maybe the only movie I ever wished I'd seen in 3-D. But even flat, they lend a transcendent, hallucinogenic tone to the film that contrasts nicely with the darkness and grit.
So finally, the true Judge Dredd reaches the big screen.
The only crime here is that no one saw it.