It seems only right that Judge Dredd should currently find himself rebooted on the big screen in Dredd. One of the UK’s most enduring comic-book characters, after 35 years service in the pages of the future-set anthology 2000 AD, Dredd’s origins are firmly rooted in movie iconography.
A frankly fascistic, leather-clad, chopper-riding “Street Judge” (which means he combines the civic powers of policeman, judge, jury and, if required, executioner), Dredd was created by Scottish writer John Wagner and Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra when 2000 AD was in development in 1976. Wagner is said to have given Ezquerra a poster for the sci-fi smash-up film Death Race 2000 as a guide, in which motorbike racer David Carradine appeared in black leathers and helmet.
But the first strip, which appeared in issue 2 of the magazine in March 1977, was actually drawn by Mike McMahon, whose blueprint has endured ever since. Meanwhile, Dredd’s square-jawed attitude to law enforcement – neither namby nor pamby – was straight out of Dirty Harry (the right-wing Clint Eastwood franchise’s third instalment, The Enforcer, was released in 1976).
Dredd’s beat is Mega-City One, a dystopian vision of America’s east coast in the late 21st and early 22nd century, whose population lives in super-high-rise blocks, traditionally named as in-jokes. Dredd himself lived for 20 years in Rowdy Yates Block, named after Eastwood’s character in TV series Rawhide. Other celebrity references include blocks named after Charlton Heston and, less obviously, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
Among the cast of Death Race 2000, as connoisseurs of cult movies will know, was one Sylvester Stallone. In 1995, Stallone took the role of Dredd in the first, ill-fated big-screen adaptation of the strip. Directed with vision by Brit Danny Cannon and scripted by William Wisher Jr (Terminator 2) and Steven E de Souza (Die Hard), Judge Dredd fell between the cracks; too unfaithful to the text to please comics fans, yet still too dark to find a wider, non-comics audience. It all went wrong when Stallone’s Dredd removed his helmet and showed his face, something that the comic-strip character has never done in the whole of his 35 years, because Wagner originally wanted him to embody “the facelessness of justice”.
And now Karl Urban takes the role in Dredd, a critical and commercial hit in the hands of director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and writer Alex Garland (The Beach, Sunshine), who is a long-standing 2000 AD fan and seems to have understood the source. No disrespect, but Urban is not a big enough star to cause the studio to get cold feet. They didn’t need to push for his unmasking, as they did with Sly, thus the mythology escapes unscathed. Urban’s excellent chin does a great job, however, and his action-movie physique and Christian Bale-like bass growl fill the screen.
Perhaps Dredd will expunge any bad memories of Judge Dredd – even Stallone called it “a missed opportunity” in a 2008 interview – and UK comics will finally have their own bankable franchise. We haven’t managed as stylish a comic-to-screen transfer since Modesty Blaise in 1966.
There has always been a fertile transatlantic cross-over for British comic artists and writers – led by Watchmen’s Alan Moore, who wrote for 2000 AD and was then hired by DC Comics – but Dredd would be the first truly homegrown property to take off. Wagner, who oversaw the script, has said he’s irritated by the mistaken impression that Dredd is a remake of the Stallone film (he calls it a “proper-make”). So let’s hope that s no barrier to success in the States, a market that’s vital to the bottom line.
Of course, future instalments – and perhaps future chins to replace Urban’s – are up against a truth that does not apply to most comic-book heroes: Judge Dredd has been ageing in real time since 1977 and is currently in his 70s in the comic. Like Harry Potter, he is fallible to the ravages of time. So he could end up being played by one of his inspirations, Clint Eastwood himself, in the not-too-distant future.