Two Cents Passes Judgment on DREDD

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

Since his introduction in the pages of British sci-fi comic anthology 2000 A.D., in 1977 Judge Dredd has been cultishly adored by a devoted following. Created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd was designed as a parody of the fascist, ultra-violent cop hero prevalent in media (especially American media) at that time.

With a face permanently covered except for his curled snarl and a seemingly limitless capacity for brutal justice, Judge Dredd patrols the post-apocalyptic metropolis of Mega-City One and the towering ‘city blocks’ where the survivors of nuclear war spend their violent days. ‘Judges’ investigate crimes and then serve as judge, jury, and, yup you guessed it, executioner.

Despite being a warped parody of gruesome Hollywood access, Hollywood has now twice come calling for Judge Dredd. The first adaptation, 1995’s Judge Dredd, starred Sylvester Stallone (and Rob Schneider) and does have its defenders. But comic fans were turned off almost immediately, as Stallone’s version of Dredd quickly removes his helmet (a critical no-no in the comics for decades).

In 2012, writer (and possible ghost director, depending on who you ask) Alex Garland and credited director Peter Travis devised a new big screen version of Judge Dredd, one that would be more faithful to the grimy, malicious energy of the original stories.

Dredd stars Karl Urban (permanently helmeted) as the eponymous lawman, who starts off the film being assigned a young, psychic rookie judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) for training and evaluation. As part of that training, Dredd lets Anderson pick which crimes they will respond to that day, and by random chance she picks a triple homicide in the “Peach Trees” block.

Thus begins a very long, very bad day for the pair, as the random homicide investigations puts them in the warpath of the psychotic crimelord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). It’s not long before Ma-Ma has sealed off the building and declared war on the judges, meaning that if Dredd and Anderson ever want to see daylight again, they’ll have to fight their way up 200 stories.

Dredd went largely unnoticed on theatrical release. Blame audience burnout on 3D releases. Blame the film looking a hair too similar to The Raid (a complete coincidence, acknowledged by all parties from both movies). Blame general American unawareness of the character. But almost immediately Dredd saw a major reappraisal and has quickly become one of the more popular cult films of the past decades, so much so that rumors of a sequel or some kind of return to this version of the world continue to swirl, with Urban apparently fully ready to clamp the helmet back on should the chance ever arrive.

And maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But for now, let’s go to war with Dredd.

Next Week’s Pick:

Visually inventive and endlessly endearing, Jorge Gutierrez’s ebullient, death-defying love story The Book of Life has, like Dredd, been a relatively underseen work of genius. Appearing on Disney+ recently has boosted the film’s visibility, leading to a wave of rediscovery of as well as a new surge of comparisons to the somewhat similarly plotted Coco (unfortunately for Coco).

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests:

Trey Lawson:

Dredd is lowkey one of the best comic book movies of the 2010s. It gets shorthanded as a riff on The Raid, which is understandable given that both use a similar “cops in a multi-story criminal-run complex” siege structure (which is older than The Raid but that movie is a pretty damn perfect example). But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Raid is one of the best martial arts action movies of the 21st century, Dredd relies far more on gunplay.

What Dredd gets right about its source comic is a pitch-black vision of the future inspired by Hollywood-style cop movies (think Dirty Harry) pushed to a satirical (albeit deadpan) extreme. Karl Urban is excellent (and surprisingly expressive) as the scowling titular judge who never removes his helmet. Lena Headey makes for an intense crime boss as well. Olivia Thirlby is also quite good as his helmetless rookie partner, who serves more or less as the audience’s way into the world of Mega-City One, as are Domhnall Gleeson and Wood Harris as the villain’s henchmen. But the action is the real star of the film, and aside from a handful of CGI effects that bugged me it is well-shot and relentless. I very much regret not getting to see Dredd in 3D when it played theaters for all of a weekend — I bet those super saturated slo-mo shots looked really cool. Dredd was clearly meant to start a franchise, but it stands on its own pretty well. At this point it’s been long enough that I can’t imagine a direct sequel will happen (but I would love to be wrong). (@T_Lawson)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

Alex Garland’s brand of sci-fi tends to leave me cold, and for a long time I’ve lumped Dredd in with Ex Machina and Annihilation as striking, thoughtful movies that I admire deeply but that are so resolutely inhuman in their worlds and emotions that I bounce right off them.

Having finally rewatched Dredd for the first time in years, I’m happy that this time it really clicked for me. There’s a painterly beauty to the repulsive future depicted here, with blood splashing like wet ink on a canvas. I do still wish they got a little more mileage out of the visual possibilities of “slo mo” besides one shootout and one villain death but that seems like a quibble.

I may not love Dredd as fiercely as its loudest adherents, but I do hope that someday we get a return trip to this world, preferably with Urban’s scowling mug still guiding the way. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Ed Travis:

Dredd is a fantastic film; laser focused, true to the spirit of the comic book character, and filled with ratcheting tension and killer hard-R action set pieces. That it resembles The Raid in structure and didn’t light the box office on fire are incidental to how truly awesome the film itself is.

So much of the impetus for Dredd to keep being adapted and readapted for current mediums is the brilliant foundation the original character was built on in the pages of British comics 2000 A.D. Creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra have simply created an iconic and enduring character that, while maybe not hugely mainstream in the United States, nevertheless remains compelling and relevant. Famously never depicted without wearing his signature helmet, Dredd is always The Law. This trope was abandoned in Stallone’s Judge Dredd, much to fans’ dismay. And while this critic finds a lot to like in the high profile failure of that project, 2012’s Dredd nails Wagner and Ezquerra’s character far more squarely than 1995’s adaptation. (@Ed_Travis)

Read more of Ed’s thoughts on Dredd HERE.

Austin Vashaw:

I’ve read a pretty fair amount of Judge Dredd comics and consider myself a fan. And despite the helmet thing, I’m a big fan of the prior Stallone film, a sprawling and terrifically fun adventure in a futuristic dystopian wasteland, even if has more in common with Demolition Man than with 2000AD’s scowling lawbringer.

Where the prior adaptation successfully goes for a sprawling sense of scale, Dredd has more depth. I wish it could show off more of its world, but its tightly wound (and bound) siege story does a lot with a moderate budget.

Tower-structure action has been done before, but when it works, it really works, and the enormous tower does feel like a self-contained world within the larger, sprawling Megacity. Dredd and Anderson’s trek to the top of Ma-Ma’s criminal headquarters hits plenty of the right notes with explosive and suitably gruesome action, world-building, and the film’s celebrated “SloMo” drug effects. It’s a shame that it sees unlikely we’ll get a sequel to this terrific action film, though I hold out hope that a streaming giant will recognize and act on its potential. (@VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick:

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