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
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
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-