The first film adaptation of Judge Dredd, a British comic book set in a dystopian wasteland, is described on Wikipedia as “a critical and commercial disappointment.” If you appreciate a high body count, Rob Schneider’s comic relief, and cyborg cannibal mutants (plus that air of gravitas a Max Von Sydow cameo affords), as I do, you might find that assessment somewhat harsh. But the fact remains, Judge Dredd (1995) was a cheap attempt to commercialize the complex world created in the comic strip.
The setting: Mega-City One is an over-populated, under-policed metropolis stretching across the eastern seaborn of the United States; the rest of the country outside the city’s borders has been reduced to a nuclear wasteland. The government is a dictatorship run by the Justice Department, which empowers “Street Judges” not only to arrest criminals, but also to act as judge, jury and even executioner on the spot.
In the comics, our hero never takes off his helmet; he’s simply the physical embodiment of justice in a world battling with authoritarianism and lawlessness. According to the creator, “It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul. So it isn’t necessary for readers to see Dredd’s face, and I don’t want you to.” (For a quick history of the comic, check out WatchMojo’s “Superhero Origins”)
Most fans of the comic book would agree that the new version was infinitely more loyal to the source material; Dredd successfully creates a gritty, fully-realized dystopian landscape, and Karl Urban plays the faceless hero with restraint. His delivery of the classic Dredd line (“I am the law“) is quietly menacing, as opposed to Stallone’s self-indulgent bellowing “I AM THE LAW!”
As we see in Dredd, the title character is more than a mindless killing machine. He encourages “Rookie” Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to carry out her sentencing and seems to reduce casualties to statistics, but also shows restraint when dealing with juvenile delinquents and anger over numbers of civilians placed in danger.
And in a refreshing turn of events, he treats the rookie as such: a naïve newcomer struggling with the morality of her new role in society, but determined to prove herself. Aside from boilerplate sexual threats from the bad guys – which she handled capably, without waiting for rescue – she was not depicted as a sexual object, and there were no hints of romance between her and Dredd (though apparently only an intervention from the creator saved us from the obligatory kiss).
So essentially, the role of the rookie Judge could easily been cast as a male role. Similarly, Ma-Ma was your standard psychopathic movie villain, more reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker than Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. She was as unattractive as Lena Headey could be visualized on screen, and presented herself as a ruthless, violent leader rather than a manipulative sexpot. Compare this depiction of women as competent, evolved characters with Lucy Liu’s line in the Man With the Iron Fists trailer: “Power belongs to no one until it is seized through sex… and violence,” with a clear emphasis on the former.
ComicBookGrrrl has an excellent review on the women of Dredd, which delves into why this de-objectification of the two main female characters is so extraordinary. Thirlby herself confirms that this was a conscious decision in an interview:
Sex is a weapon in this film – would you agree?
It’s hard to say because the world of Dredd is not a sexual world. Comic book women are usually drawn so you can see their bodies, but I don’t think I played Anderson that way. She was never going to have cleavage, she was never supposed to be sexy, she was always supposed to look like a Judge. The sexual objectification that she goes through is just something that she goes through in the modern world and in the post-apocalyptic one as well. It’s something that women just have to balance and the ability to balance that is what gives us strength.
In keeping with the recent trend of “serious” comic book movies, Dredd attempts to add weight and moral ambiguity to the story. Thankfully the film stops shy of the somber, morose depths reached by The Dark Knight Rises, but the decision to elevate the movie above cheap thrills, cheesy humor and forced romance helped to create a unique and surprisingly resonant world.