A long-standing institution of the British comic (note, not comic-book) industry, Judge Joseph Dredd of Mega-City One is a figure whose place within the mainstream international popular culture spectrum is perhaps most notable for his absence. Lacking the profile of a Batman or a Wolverine, Judge Dredd has long sat on the fringes of the wider world of the comics-hero, in spite of being the introduction to the medium for many a young British reader. 2000AD, the comics magazine that gave a home to Judge Dredd since the character’s 1977 conception, was the logical stepping up point for those that grew up on The Beano or The Dandy, and would eventually graduate to the Marvel and DC stables in that far off land of America. Far less glamorous than it’s US counterparts, yet with a wit and character that would exact a great influence over a generation of American comic-books in the 1980’s through the likes of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, 2000AD plays out like an Albion-ic take on France’s Heavy Metal, both being anthology/portmanteau-type volumes, with multiple parts of several stories contained in each fortnightly issue.
Coming of age during Thatcher’s Britain, the roots of Judge Dredd lay in ongoing attempts to comment on, and reposition the nature of the beast that presided over the country during that period. Rebellious and incendiary, 2000AD, as it exists today, is built upon a wit and subversiveness that was injected at that time, with the character’s creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra using Judge Dredd to highlight just how ridiculous and even dangerous the political and social situation was in the 1980’s. Judge Dredd’s quasi-fascistic approach to justice combined the no-holds barred tactics of a Metropolitan Police Force living by their own rule (see, Operation Countryman, or the 1984 miners strikes, etc) with the type of vigilante behavior as seen in Hollywood action films. Clint Eastwood, notable at the time for his Dirty Harry cop, as well as a wealth of Western anti-heroes, provided a suitably complex role-model for which Wagner and Ezquerra use as the template for their creation, the politically elaborate psychology proving the perfect basis from which to hold a figured discussion.
Following an infamous (if not quite as torturous as some might have you believe) initial adaptation of Judge Dredd in the mid-1990’s, DNA Films, the British film production house best known for it’s collaborations with Danny Boyle decided to take a second stab at the proverbial vest. And it’s in many ways a success.
Refreshingly fleeting origins, eschewing the now traditional 90 minutes worth of backstory for but a few lines of exposition, British filmmaker Pete Travis, from a script by Alex Garland, takes a “full speed ahead” approach with the character. His past isn’t explored, nor are his motivations, with any reasoning coming through in between the beats, or through subtext, while this iteration largely lacks the subversive bite that has traditionally accompanied the character. Satire is present, albeit fleetingly and inconsistently (the film opens with a very slight mention to a military sponsored news report, while the sight of the Judge’s uniforms themselves might be considered explanation enough), while the fascist undertones remain just that: never approached, tackled or really understood. Which is a shame, given that the subversiveness so closely associated with the source never really bubbles to the top.
Aesthetically Travis has adopted a “realistic” slant in his approach. His Mega-City One lacks the energy and the colour of the world as presented in previous iterations (it was in this area that 1995’s Judge Dredd truly shone), yet it does feel rather apt. The ‘used’ futures of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men are the key cinematic reference points, the tone of the world believable in that it sits not far away from our own as it is now. The realistic approach lends an energy to proceedings: it never falters under its own weight, with the slight nature of it all dictating that it moves swiftly along. The film is presented in 3D, a technique widely criticized by many on most films, yet it’s satisfying here, and even narratively appropriate, thanks to the nature of the MacGuffin at the center of the piece. The 3D effect also adds a layer of aesthetic blinding between the viewer on the film, which in turn helps to soften some of the “cheapness” of the sleek and lifeless digital photography on display (one couldn’t help but feel as though Dredd occasionally feels like a fan film at times, thanks to it’s visuals and some of the lesser performances, with sections recalling the infamous visual tone of a video game cut scene).
In spite of any faults, the world of Dredd is one that would be well served by further exploration, hopefully with some of the more stylised elements of the source material approached and implemented using Garland’s interesting interpretation, albeit with a more confident filmmaker than Travis in tow.