YOU BE THE JUDGE

Trans­form­ing the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic comic book hero Judge Dredd into cin­e­matic re­al­ity was a mat­ter of lay­ing down the law, Karl Ur­ban tells Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IT is the year 2099. Hu­man so­ci­ety has crum­bled to a ves­tige of the civilised ac­tiv­ity re­quired for law and or­der. Un­em­ploy­ment is the dom­i­nant mode. Bru­tal vi­o­lence and crime are ev­ery­day. Jus­tice is dis­pensed by sup­pos­edly pas­sion­less ser­vants of the city, oper­at­ing as judge, jury and, where re­quired, im­me­di­ate ex­e­cu­tioner.

This is the dystopian en­vi­ron­ment of MegaC­ity One and its most fa­mous law­man, Judge Dredd — and when the hel­meted and heav­ily mus­cled Dredd hit the streets of Bri­tain in 1977 as the flag­ship strip in a new comic book called 2000AD, he struck a re­sound­ing chord. De­spite be­ing set far into the fu­ture, it was as though his world slot­ted right into the times.

Dredd was both fear­some and wise­crack­ing, yet oper­at­ing with the most eco­nomic brevity of speech and ac­tion (‘‘Let ev­ery man know that cit­i­zen­ship is a priv­i­lege, not a right!’’); brawny be­neath his bulked-up suit, yet no tra­di­tional su­per­hero — for sup­port he re­lied on his Law­giver gun, with its six types of bul­let, and his Law­mas­ter laser-equipped mo­tor­bike. He dealt with cor­rup­tion and weak­ness among his fel­low judges just as he did with crime among the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion: through swift and bru­tal dis­patch.

And he did all this with­out ever re­mov­ing that men­ac­ing and mys­te­ri­ous hel­met; some­thing that ini­tially might have seemed to be a gim­mick — the fact read­ers never saw his face — gave a re­mote im­par­tial­ity to this all-too-hu­man fig­ure.

As satire, the strip played on pre­vail­ing fears of the time: the lin­ger­ing Cold War years and their nu­clear win­ter rhetoric; on­go­ing wor­ries about an oil cri­sis-led break­down of the so­cial or­der; a per­ceived end to the West’s postWorld War II pros­per­ity. Dredd’s postapoc­a­lyp­tic and to­tal­i­tar­ian story-lines eventu-

HIS ARCHETYPE IS LINKED TO THE GREAT MAN-WITH-NO-NAME WESTERN

KARL UR­BAN

ally be­came as­so­ci­ated with Mar­garet Thatcher’s and Ron­ald Rea­gan’s re­spec­tive lead­er­ships through the 1980s, al­though in truth, when the char­ac­ter first hit the streets, Thatcher was still two years off tak­ing over at 10 Down­ing St and Rea­gan was four years away from the White House.

The sub­ver­sive and an­gry hu­mour of punk mu­sic’s mid-70s ex­plo­sion was prob­a­bly more rel­e­vant at the mo­ment of 2000AD’s launch, as was a grow­ing hunger for sci­ence fic­tion ad­ven­ture: sig­nif­i­cantly, Dredd’s ap­pear­ance pre-dated Ge­orge Lu­cas’s first Star Wars epic by just a few weeks.

Thirty-five years later, Dredd and the mag­a­zine that launched him are still go­ing strong — so strong, in fact, that a 3-D film ver­sion of the story, sim­ply called Dredd and star­ring New Zealan­der Karl Ur­ban, leaps con­vinc­ingly off the page and prac­ti­cally into the viewer’s lap. And that, for any­one who knows the bleak and windswept al­leys and gi­ant res­i­den­tial tow­ers of Mega-City One, is no mean feat. UR­BAN, an eas­ily spo­ken 40-year-old, is the kind of ac­tor who fo­cuses on long-term goals. From his ear­li­est the­atre and TV be­gin­nings in Welling­ton and Auck­land, he knew he was in it for the in­ter­na­tional game — and, as it turns out, be­ing a Judge Dredd fan from his teenage years was a pretty good foun­da­tion for the next step in that game.

By the time Dredd came around, Ur­ban had al­ready es­tab­lished him­self with more than a decade’s worth of big-bud­get film cred­its that in­cluded the sec­ond and third Lord of the Rings films, a well-re­garded Dr Leonard McCoy in J. J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek re­boot and as an as­sas­sin in The Bourne Supremacy. While con­tin­u­ing to base him­self and his young fam­ily in Welling­ton — as an ac­tor he sim­ply re­gards him­self as a ‘‘ true ci­ti­zen of the world’’, able to travel abroad for work as re­quired — Ur­ban says he quickly knew he wanted the role of Dredd when it be­came clear what level of at­ten­tion to de­tail was go­ing to be in­volved.

In fact, there has been a re­sound­ing sigh of re­lief from across the 2000AD uni­verse — and it is an ex­tremely ded­i­cated fan base — that this ver­sion will likely bury for­ever a dis­as­trous 1995 Sylvester Stal­lone at­tempt. (Even Stal­lone ap­par­ently recog­nises his crack at the story failed, among its many sins be­ing the fact Stal­lone’s Dredd re­moved his mask.)

One of the rea­sons for the pos­i­tive re­ac­tion is the strength of the writ­ing — orig­i­nal Dredd co-cre­ator John Wag­ner was, as Ur­ban puts it, a ‘‘ fully paid-up mem­ber of the crew’’ and con­sulted closely with writer Alex Gar­land ( Never Let Me Go, Sun­shine, 28 Days Later, as well as two hit nov­els that were turned into movies, The Beach and The Tesser­act). And, like Ur­ban, Gar­land came to the project as a Dredd fan from child­hood; it’s a con­flu­ence of minds that shows. Ur­ban tells of a script meet­ing not long be­fore shoot­ing be­gan in Cape Town, South Africa, where he had re­called a piece of ad­vice from Wag­ner re­gard­ing the char­ac­ter’s ex­tremely la­conic na­ture that, as a gen­eral rule, ‘‘ Dredd says less’’.

Ur­ban picks up the story: ‘‘[ It was] a cou­ple of weeks be­fore we started shoot­ing, and Alex looks over at my page and sees these lines that I’ve drawn through the di­a­logue, and sort of queried it, and I said, ‘ Look, I love the style of it, mate — but Dredd says less.’ So even from there, we fur­ther re­duced what Dredd said, be­cause he’s a char­ac­ter of econ­omy — econ­omy in move­ment, econ­omy in speech. I think his archetype is linked to the great man-

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