Many people don't know this, but there's more to the world of comic books than superheroes. In fact, many of the brightest names in American comics started writing in other countries, especially Britain, which has a distinct comic book industry that in many ways takes more chances than Marvel, DC, Image, or Dark Horse. Take '2000 AD' as an example. This sci-fi anthology magazine debuted in the mid-70's, and in the second issue it featured a strip called 'Judge Dredd'. The title character of the strip was a stern, no-nonsense cop living in an absolute police state. The property proved so popular that the strip has run non-stop in every issue of '2000 AD' ever since. Even more surprising, the comic takes place in real time, meaning that one year of our lives is one year in the world of 'Judge Dredd'. The comic is incredibly ambitious, with many storylines taking place over the course of six months or more.
Judge Dredd is so popular in his native Britain that his name is used as a byword for the threat of a police state. Sadly, in America, most people's only exposure to the character is the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle. While that movie has some fun elements, it did a terrible job of translating the comic to the screen. It's also tainted the franchise in American eyes so thoroughly that the character is considered something of a joke by anyone who hasn't read the brilliant comic books. As a result, another attempt at adapting the property to film hasn't happened for almost twenty years. But finally Alex Garland, author of 'The Beach' and screenwriter of '28 Days Later', 'Sunshine', and 'Never Let Me Go', managed to get the funds together to make a low budget film, this one titled simply 'Dredd'.
'Dredd' stars Karl Urban in the title role. The film follows a day in the life of a Judge of Mega-City One, as Dredd assesses the telepathic Judge candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). They investigate a trio of homicides in the Peach Trees megablock (a city contained within a massive skyscraper that dwarfs the Empire State Building). In doing so, they get on the wrong side of Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a drug lord determined to maintain her empire at any cost. Locking down the megablock, Dredd and Anderson have nowhere to go but up to find Ma-Ma in the penthouse…and judge her.
Does the plot sound familiar? If you follow action movies, it should. The leaked script for 'Dredd' was used as the basis for the recent Indonesian hit 'The Raid: Redemption'. However, the similarities do not mean that 'Dredd' is simply a retread of 'The Raid' (although 'Dredd' was written first, so it should be the other way around). Both have enough differences and distinct personalities that while 'Dredd' may feel familiar, it's never boring. For one thing, the action is wholly different between the two films, with 'The Raid' favoring breakneck physical stunts with 'Dredd' using more measured gunplay and tactical awareness. And in its own way, 'Dredd' is just as visceral.
'Dredd' develops a strong visual style, immediately distancing itself from the Stallone version. 'Dredd' is dirty, grimy, and feels incredibly real. The film was shot in South Africa, with Cape Town and Johannesburg standing in for the east coast of the United States in a post-apocalyptic Mega-City. I was very impressed with the production design of 'Dredd'. It feels like a place that could exist under the right circumstances, instead of the 'Blade Runner' gone mad look that defined the 1995 film. Even more arresting are the "Slo-Mo" sequences. Slo-Mo is a drug that slows down time for the person high on it, and the filmmakers take great care to show these trips, turning gunfights into slow motion ballets of death. 'Dredd' takes this even further than films like 'Hard Boiled' or 'The Matrix', using newly developed cameras that shoot at 3,000 frames per second, for an unparalleled sense of slow motion. The results are stunning.
Most pleasingly, the film is one of the most faithful comic book adaptations I've ever seen. True to the source material, we never see Judge Dredd's face. There is one shot where we see the back of his head at the beginning, but once he suits up, his helmet stays right on his head where it should be. Garland perfectly understands the world writer John Wagner created in the comic strip, and managed to bring that world intact to the silver screen. There is a sly sense of humor that runs through the picture, whether it be a homeless man with a sign that says "Homeless junkie: Will debase self for credits" or the way that automated machines clean up dead bodies after a food court massacre. There are wink and you'll miss 'em nods to the comic series, such as the appearance of Judges Volt and Guthrie, Judges Hershey's and Griffen's names on a computer terminal, Chopper's smiley face and "Kenny Who?" graffiti, and even a Judge Death figurine hanging in the van that Judge Dredd chases in the film's opening. The filmmakers are clearly fans of the comic, and it shows.
Karl Urban, perhaps the most underrated genre actor working today (having appeared in 'The Lord of the Rings', 'Star Trek', 'The Chronicles of Riddick', 'Priest', and many others) anchors the movie as the titular Judge Dredd, and he knocks it out of the park. Perpetually wearing Dredd's trademark scowl on his face, Urban plays Dredd as the no-nonsense Judge that he is. He doesn't get happy or even particularly mad. He just enforces the law the best way he knows how: Through the barrel of a gun. Urban spares us the melodrama that Stallone stuck us with, and the result is a wholly accurate portrayal of an iconic character.
Olivia Thirlby anchors the audience as Judge Anderson. Anderson is psychic, and her powers come to play a major role in the film. Despite this, she's a neophyte and we experience the world through her eyes. Thirlby is very solid, providing us with the sole character arc in the film, as she goes from scared trainee to battle-hardened Judge. If your only experience with Lena Headey is from 'Game of Thrones', then you might not even recognize her here as the brutal and sadistic Ma-Ma. Warped and scarred, Headey is a potent villain who proves to be quite the match for Dredd.
The movie is as no-nonsense as its central character. There's no needless romance between Dredd and Anderson shoehorned in. We never learn anything about Dredd's childhood, what he does in his time off, or indeed what he feels at all. We only see him do his job. In other movies, the lack of such development might be a detriment, but here it works. The film is lean and mean and takes no prisoners. Sadly, it bombed even harder than the Stallone flick, despite far better critical response. 'Dredd' is primed to become a cult classic, a title that was unjustly ignored in theaters. If enough people buy it on home video, perhaps we can get a little more out of this version of Dredd's world. And let's hope we do, because Garland and company have this property down pat.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate offers 'Dredd' on a single 50 GB dual-layer disc with both the 3D and 2D versions of the film. The package comes in a slipcover that reproduces the cover art and an insert with a code for the Ultraviolet and Digital Copy included. The disc has several skippable trailers at the start, specifically 'The Last Stand', 'Alex Cross', 'The Cold Light of Day', an ad for the 'Tarantino XX' collection, 'The Expendables 2', 'The Men Who Built America', and an ad for 'Epix.'
The disc handles switching between 2D and 3D smoothly. When you first choose to play the movie, you decide which version you want to view. The disc will remember your choice and if you go back to the main menu and select a scene, it will use the version you selected. If you switch to the other format, it will go back to the point in the film where you left off. In 3D, the pop-up menu shows up as an overlay at the bottom of the image. If you select 2D, the image reduces in size and shoots to the upper right corner of the screen, while the menu takes up the rest of the screen.
'Dredd' arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC/MVC 1080p encode at its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Filmed with three different digital cameras, the Red One MX, the Phantom Flex, and Silicon Imaging SI-2K, 'Dredd' was shot natively in 3D, and it shows. Additionally, the Phantom Flex was run at 3,000 frames per second to achieve the Slo-Mo shots that are such a standout feature of the film.
In 3D, 'Dredd' looks absolutely stunning. The sense of depth is apparent from the very first frames, as we see Mega-City One in the distance, with the Cursed Earth in the foreground. You really get a sense of space and distance, and director Pete Travis skillfully retains this sense throughout the film. Once we get into Peach Trees, the framing frequently makes use of the confined areas, showing us the characters through grates or fences, barred windows and other perspectives that not only enhance the 3D, but also makes us feel as if the building itself were spying on Dredd and Anderson. Clarity is also astonishing. The close-up shots of the techie's electronically enhanced eyes are some of the most striking shots I've ever seen on a Blu-ray disc. Small details like the stains on Ma-Ma's teeth, the pits of her scars, or the graffiti scrawled on walls are all easy to spot and isolate.
The layers of the 3D environment are all immaculately rendered, without making any individual element feel like a cardboard cutout. Again, the framing is clearly meant for 3D, placing characters against backdrops so they stand out. Foreground and background separation is wide, and the picture often feels like you're looking into a real 3D space. Shots bearing down on characters from above highlight their isolation within the frame, which the 3D heightens. So many of the shots are designed to take advantage of 3D. Take a look at the moment where Dredd, having just shot out the tires on a van, steps off his motorcycle. His boot dominates the frame, the kickstand off to the side, and deep in the background sits the overturned vehicle. It's not a flashy 3D shot, but it makes great use of the format. Even the way Dredd holds his gun was framed with 3D in mind. Brightness has been compensated for, as the unfiltered 3D image is noticeably brighter than the 2D image. There's no issue with detail getting lost in shadow.
In both the 3D and 2D transfers, colors look very good. 'Dredd' uses a drab color scheme, creating a world that looks like it's falling apart at the seams. Sickly greens, browns, and oranges dominate. Red is ruddy, so when the blood starts flying, it's not a bright crimson but more of a darker hue. Fleshtones are accurate. Contrast looks pushed, but this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. This affects whites the most, as they sometimes veer very close to blooming. Blacks are more solid.
All of these aesthetics come together in the Slo-Mo sequences. The slow motion footage is breathtaking, and in 3D every part of the image is crystal clear and feel excitingly alive. A rainbow halo edges around objects, filling the frame with colors. Brightness gets cranked, and color saturation goes into overdrive. These sequences are truly breathtaking and the transfer ably reproduces them. There's very little ghosting in the picture, and when it does show up it's both minor and brief. If you're not looking for ghosting you might not even see it rear its ugly head. There is some slight posterization in a few shots, but these are very hard to spot in 3D. 'Dredd' was the reason I upgraded my TV to a 3D television, and I'm very happy to say that it does not disappoint.
The 2D transfer, which is one of the eyes of the 3D transfer, is not quite as stellar. In most of the important respects, it's just fine. Colors, detail, and contrast all appear the same as the 3D. The biggest issue is digital noise. Many of the darker scenes in the 2D image are littered with noise to the point of distraction. This isn't an issue in 3D. Foreground objects sometimes appear a bit fuzzy in comparison to the 3D as well. The other major issue is that it's quite clear that the film was designed to be seen stereoscopically, and watching it in 2D actually makes it look more artificial. This isn't the case of objects coming out at the audience that look silly in 2D. It's clear from watching the movie both ways that the framing and mise-en-scene is intended to be seen in three dimensions. Ironically, while no one looks like a cardboard cutout in 3D, they feel like them in 2D. Also, those scant shots which have posterization are more noticeable in 2D.
The 3D transfer of 'Dredd' is among the best available in the format. If only the 2D were just as strong.
Lionsgate splurges on 'Dredd', giving us a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix with DTS Neo:X compatibility. As you can read from an info graphic on the disc, Neo:X is a protocol that allows for a fuller sound mix for up to 11 channels of sound. My receiver, while strong, is not high-end enough to support Neo:X, but I don't mind because the lossless 7.1 mix I can hear is absolutely exceptional.
This mix is incredibly aggressive. The movie may be low budget, but the sound is big enough for a movie with a three hundred million dollar bankroll. Directionality is spectacular, with bullets bouncing from left to right and front to back. The imaging is seamless and very organic. The sound field is almost always active with sonic detail. A great example is again when Dredd steps off his bike after flipping the van full of perps. His foot lands with an immense thump thanks to the thunderous LFE. As he approaches the van, you hear the crinkle of his leather armor, the tinkling of broken glass falling from the van, and his hand tightening on the grip of his Lawmaker. Even the quiet moments are alive with vividly realized sound.
The coldly electronic score, vaguely reminiscent of another great urban sci-fi actioner, 'Escape From New York', keeps up through most of the film, yet never overtakes the dialogue or the effects. Balancing in general isn't a problem. You can hear Urban's satisfying growl, Ma-Ma's lazy drawl, and Anderson's small worried voice without any problems. And again, when you get into the Slo-Mo sequences, even the sound changes, becoming airy and ethereal, keeping with the theme of time slowing down.
I watched 'Dredd' three times for this review and saw it in the theaters, and found new surprises in the sound mix with each viewing. I can't imagine how it could be better with Neo:X, but if someone does hear that encode, please let me know what you think. As it is, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is one of the best I've heard all year.
For a $50 million movie that only raked in $30 million worldwide, I suppose we should be glad we're getting any special features at all. But for a movie this good, and a new release in 2012, the lack of substantial extras is a real letdown. The movie also had troubles in post-production, with writer/producer Alex Garland taking over editing from director Pete Travis, which could have been addressed. At the very least we should have gotten a commentary with Garland and Urban. Instead we've got a lightweight collection of featurettes, and a disc demo to test your speakers and make sure they're hooked up correctly.
'Dredd' is the best action film of 2012, as well as one of the most faithful comic book adaptations of all time. Karl Urban becomes Dredd, and Lena Headey is downright despicable as the notorious Ma-Ma. The movie is relentless and driving, nothing but pure action from start to finish. The 3D transfer on this Blu-ray disc is absolutely stunning, with incredible clarity and immense depth with almost no ghosting. The 2D transfer isn't quite as immaculate, with unfortunate digital noise in many of the darker shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is bold and aggressive, one of the best I've heard all year, and Neo:X compatible if your receiver can handle it. Sadly, the extras here are meager.
If you didn't see this movie, and judging by worldwide box office receipts most people didn't, please heed all the good reviews and buy this Blu-ray. There are literally hundreds of stories that can be culled from the 'Judge Dredd' universe, and according to writer/producer Alex Garland, he had some big plans for future installments. If enough people buy this Blu-ray and show the studio that there's an audience for more 'Dredd' material, that might be enough to get someone to green light a sequel.
As a comic book fan, and an action movie fan, I urge every one of you who reads this to go out and buy a copy. If you don't comply...you will be judged.