There are two motion picture adaptations of the classic 2000 AD science fiction/satirical comic strip, Judge Dredd. The first is a 1995 effort starring Sylvester Stallone, Rob Schneider and Armand Assante. Watching that will cause you to question your life choices. The second is Dredd, a 2012 effort starring Karl Urban that is so vastly superior to its predecessor that we might as well consider the 2012 version as the only version. The Karl Urban Dredd movie is so good it arrested Stallone’s version and sentenced it to 10 years in an iso-cube for impersonating a cop.
There’s not much to this story, really. In the future, America is an irradiated wasteland, and civilization has been concentrated into enormous mega-cities of billions of people crammed into impossibly tight confines. Violent crime is so rampant that law is enforced by the Judges, heavily armed and armored supercops authorized to act as judge, jury and executioner on the spot. In the comic, this is all part of an extreme setting ripe for satire and dark comedy. This movie plays it straight, (with consultation from one of the comic’s co-creators) emphasizing a dystopia so bleak that you look at the Judges and figure, yeah, why not? The only other option is nuking the city.
Against this backdrop, we watch as Judge Dredd goes out on patrol, taking along the telepathic rookie Judge Anderson for her final field examination. Dredd and Anderson get called to a mega-high-rise called Peach Tree to investigate a triple homicide that is particularly gruesome by our standards, but in the context of Mega-City One is kind of like aggravated jaywalking. As they investigate the killing, Dredd and Anderson bust up a drug den within Peachtree and gain the attention of local drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who runs the building like her own little kingdom. She is the manufacturer of an addictive drug called Slo-Mo which makes its users experience time at 1% speed, and gives the filmmakers an excuse for some really awesome scenes of stylized violence. Ma-Ma isn’t about to have two cops wreck her operations, so she seals off the building and orders the inhabitants to kill Dredd and Anderson. Anderson is all about calling for backup. Dredd figures that since they’re already on the scene, they might as well just shoot their way to the top and take out the bad guys. And that is pretty much it. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but this is as simple, as straightforward, and as high-octane an action movie as you’re likely to get.
And that’s the point. This is not the story of the biggest case of Dredd and Anderson’s career. This is what it looks like to walk a day on Dredd’s beat. He is a superhuman law enforcement machine, simply because those are the only ones who can survive long enough to get good at their job here. He’s the best among them, but to be that good, you pretty much have to holster your humanity for the rest of your life. This makes Karl Urban’s performance in this a thing of wonder, for Dredd never, ever removes his helmet. He has exactly one facial expression—a trademark scowl that reflects how he knows there are two kinds of people in Mega-City One: those who have broken the law, and those who might. The only thing we see of Dredd’s face is his mouth, and yet, Urban still manages to wrangle a convincing performance out it all. It’s a great interpretation of the comic character, and it feels appropriate for this setting, which lends itself to both ridiculous camp or spooky fascism. Somehow, Urban’s Dredd avoids both while remaining true to its own bleak vision.
To that end, the movie’s real moment of truth is a bit of fan service in between gunfights, when Dredd is cut off and surrounded, in a position where any lesser officer of the law would consider running, surrender or suicide. Under such dire conditions, Dredd doubles down. Hell, he triples down and decides to address the whole high-rise to let them know just what they are dealing with. He tells them that he is going to take Ma-Ma down. He is going to take down anybody who gets in his way. And that is that. The sun is hot. Water is wet. And Dredd does what he says.
He signs off by uttering his trademark catch phrase, “I am the law,” in a way that proves that sometimes, understatement is everything. Any other movie would have worked that line as a tick-the-boxes exercise to establish faithfulness to the source material. But in Dredd, it’s a moment to show what it means to be a Judge, and what it means to be the Judged. The law as a concept no longer applies in Mega-City One. But the people who agree to become its living avatars, do. Their presence—and the job they do—should be proof enough of that. But sometimes, as Judge Dredd shows, you have to tell people. Sometimes you have to remind them: I am the law.