TORONTO—Talking to the people behind Dredd 3D, it’s clear the new film is not a remake of the campy 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie. It’s an attempt to do for the iconic British comic-book antihero what Dark Knight did for Batman.
Both Karl Urban, who stars as the man who is “the law”, and director Pete Travis (Endgame) grew up on the Judge Dredd comic. One of the first things they agreed on when they met was that the futuristic judge would be true to his original incarnation and keep his mask on for the duration of the gritty film about two cops who are, literally, judges, jury, and, when called upon, executioners. In Dredd 3D, the veteran Dredd and the aspiring Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) find themselves barricaded inside a high-rise slum by a homicidal and chillingly calm drug dealer named Ma-Ma, played by Lena Headey.
“If you’d grown up reading Dredd, you’d never really consider taking the helmet off,” Travis told a small group of journalists during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “It just wouldn’t make sense. It would be like Batman going on TV and announcing his entire back story to the world. It doesn’t make any sense at all. That was from my point of view, and Karl’s point of view was exactly the same. He brought it up in the first meeting that we had.”
Just in case the filmmakers hadn’t grown up on Dredd, the rights holders weren’t taking any chances after watching the character get the Stallone treatment in 1995. According to Travis: “The contract from the guys who licensed the film to us said, ‘Dredd cannot take off his helmet.’ ”
Urban, who was joined by costar Thirlby for the interview, admitted that performing in a helmet was an “extraordinary challenge”. “It was, I have to confess, somewhat daunting to approach a role and know that I wasn’t able to use one of the most expressive tools available to me, but that is the only way to play the character,” Urban said. “So, as a result, I found it was, for me, a wonderful process of discovery.
“You just look at the only tools available—the voice, the body language, the physicality of the character—and, really, what I discovered was a couple things. Firstly, just having the thought and feeling the emotion, it’s amazing what that does transmit to the audience. And, secondly, it really was an exercise in the actions speaking volumes for the character. Ultimately, I guess the biggest challenge, was to define the humanity in the character, and the humour was important. The humour from the comics is key; it’s that wonderful, satirical dark humour, and it was important, wherever possible, to put that in and humanize the character.”
When Urban wanted to dive deeper into the character, he went back to the source and picked up Dredd comics for the first time since he was a teenager. He went back to the original stories by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, who launched the character in the British anthology series 2000 AD.
“One of the best things about this was going back and rereading the stories that I really loved back then and discovering a bunch of new stories and discovering the evolution and maturity and what he was writing and, more so, the depth that came through in the characters in stories like “Origins”, where the character is originally established as being so black-and-white, kind of a totalitarian fascist cop, then suddenly developing this conscience where he is actually questioning the whole system he is charged to uphold, and he ends up referring to it as ‘the big lie’. To me, that’s where the character gets really interesting.”
Thirlby said that when she sampled Dredd comics, what jumped out at her was the humour. “The world that they live in is so bleak and gritty and grey and violent and scary, and you kind of need the humour. It does two things: it alleviates the pain, but it also unlocks it somehow. And, reading the comics, that’s really what surprised me the most: the amount of wry one-liners. I was very happy to see that translate into the film as well.”
The one-liners are punctuated with some serious ultraviolence and people using a designer drug, Slo-Mo, that causes its users (and movie viewers with 3-D glasses) to experience everything in slow motion.
Urban said that, for him, the heart of his character and the movie is the relationship between Dredd and Anderson. “To me, that was the core of the film. It certainly was something on a human level, I think, that was accessible and interesting. I like the fact that at the beginning of the story, as Olivia said, the characters don’t think much of each other yet they form such a great partnership…As they warm to each other, the audience warms to us.”
Urban was also impressed that the macho judge was constantly at odds with two women—his partner, Anderson, and the coldly brutal Ma-Ma. “To have two women characters in this film who are such strong female archetypes, I just thought that was such a wonderful choice. Our film is strengthened immeasurably as a result.”
Some people making comic-book movies might fear fan reaction, but not Urban. “I put enough pressure upon myself to get it right without having to take into account how everyone else will respond,” he said. “I just feel like my responsibility is to execute the character to the best of my ability. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m not focused on what other people think.”
Watch the trailer for Dredd 3D.