Maybe Dredd was never going to be successful. It was based on a comic book beloved by a certain slice of the global population (British people) and mostly unknown to everyone else. I say “mostly” because if you say the words “Judge Dredd” in polite company, everyone thinks of the terrible 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie, a film that has somehow become the go-to example of Everything Stallone Did Wrong After Cliffhanger. The new Dredd had a curious pedigree: Written by Alex Garland, who has worked on some great films; directed by Pete Travis, who hasn’t. At one point, rumors circulated that Travis has been fired in post-production; the filmmakers released a statement claiming that they had “an unorthodox collaboration,” which is usually behind-the-scenes code for “We Hate Each Other.” The film co-starred Olivia Thirlby, best known for for various teen-movie roles; by comparison, imagine if they cast Molly Ringwald in Cobra. The movie was released in the late-September death slot. They opted to append a “3D” to the title, at the exact moment when even teenagers decided they were finished with 3D. It’s an R-Rated action movie, at a cultural moment when most people get their R-Rated action fix from TV shows. Also, the star of the movie wears a helmet for essentially the entire movie. This isn’t The Hobbit, is what I’m getting at.
So when Dredd hit theaters last September, it quickly and quietly disappeared. Made on a $45 million budget – measly for a futuristic sci-fi action movie – the film grossed just $13 million domestically and not even twice that worldwide. And that’s a god damn shame. Dredd is a crazy high-energy fever dream of an action movie. It’s a gory splatterfest, shot like a neon-grunge ’80s dystopia, with a plot that pays equal homage to Die Hard and A Fistful of Dollars. The film was shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, a uniquely accomplished cinematographer considering the film’s scuzzy-action-movie milieu: Mantle works regularly with Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier, and won the Oscar for the former’s Slumdog Millionaire. And the music by Paul Leonard-Morgan is filled with club-ready bangers – it sounds a little bit like what Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy soundtrack would’ve been, if the robots hadn’t opted to do their Hans Zimmer impression.
But without a doubt, the film’s MVP is Karl Urban. Dredd is one of the most thankless lead roles in action-movie history. Urban’s face is never shown; we see him don the helmet in silhouette at the beginning of the movie. And Dredd isn’t a particularly deep character. He isn’t just a square-jawed action hero; he’s essentially a walking, talking Square Jaw. He’s a sociopath, more focused on upholding the law than saving innocent lives. (Given how cruddy Dredd’s future is, saving people almost seems worse than letting them die.) Somehow Urban makes Dredd’s inhumanity appealing, and even a bit funny.
Although I’m not that familiar with the 2000 AD mythos, it’s clear that the movie is quite a bit truer to the source material than the Stallone version. At the same time, the film seems decidedly more straightlaced than the Judge Dredd comic books I’ve read. The comics were gonzo satires of the police state; the movie is a relatively straightforward day-in-the-life thriller. Dredd and a new recruit investigate a murder in a slum tower, and have to fight their way to the top in order to take out local druglord Ma-Ma (played by Lena Headey rocking her glorious Lannister bitchface.) The filmmakers intended Dredd as an entrée into the Dredd-verse for newcomers, with the stated intention to adapt the comic book’s more memorable story arcs in potential sequels.
And dear god, this movie needs a sequel. Working mostly within a single setting – a 200-story city-sized slum-skyscraper called Peach Trees – Dredd creates a vivid microcosm of a dystopian future America, where most citizens suffer through living conditions that suggest an overcrowded broken-down submarine. It’s a world that needs to be explored. And Urban’s Dredd is a purposefully faceless cipher. I’m not sure a sequel would explore the character much more, and I’m not sure that it needs to. The point of Dredd in the movie is that he’s a straight man, facing off against all the madness of Mega-City One. I want to see him face off against crazier madness. (Karl Urban’s chin has more gravitas than half the actors starring in superhero movies.) In so many ways, Dredd feels like the tip of an iceberg – a gore-splattered bullet-ridden iceberg listening to druggy electronica.
So, could Dredd 2 ever happen? There’s an active Make A DREDD Sequel Facebook page, which was officially endorsed by 2000 AD. The movie had an impressive showing in the home entertainment market – and there’s a good history of franchises rescued by DVD sales. Urban himself was beating the drum for Dredd 2 at Comic-Con last week. Conversely, when producer Adi Shankar appeared on Reddit for an AMA a few months ago, he more or less scotched the idea that they could ever get the funding together for another Dredd (although he claimed to be working on a Dredd short film). The movie had a smaller budget than 2012 disaster-flops like John Carter or Battleship, but at least those movies were recognizable franchise-bait adventures with attractive casts and trailer-ready digital effects. Dredd was bloody, over-the-top, and weird, with that unmistakable whiff of unpleasant urban Britishness, which American audiences really don’t like (as opposed to twee countryside Britishness, which Americans can’t get enough of.) The first movie cost close to $50 million; I can’t imagine a second movie raising $5 million.
But maybe that could be part of the fun. Maybe a sequel to Dredd could be shot on the cheap, in bleak corners of a contemporary metropolis. Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Only God Forgives is superficially similar to Dredd – neon overlighting, pounding score, blooooooood – and he reportedly filmed it for $5 million in Bangkok. Maybe Dredd 2: Black and White and Dredd All Over could get the same deal? And maybe Refn could direct? And Refn could bring Drive star Ron Perlman to play Judge Death? I’m spinning into sequel dreams here, people. DREDD 2 4 LIFE.