Hollywood isn’t merely interested in rebooting tried and true franchises like “Batman,” “RoboCop” and “Spider-Man.” The industry sometimes takes a chance on failed franchise starters.
So when the 1995 Sylvester Stallone dud “Judge Dredd” failed to give the “Rocky” star another character to sequelize into oblivion it wasn’t the end of the faceless avenger.
“Dredd,” available this week on Blu-ray and DVD, lets Karl Urban don the character’s faceless mask and blunt approach to justice. Urban, best known for bringing Bones McCoy to crusty life in “Star Trek,” is too intriguing a personality to trap under a science fiction appliance. It’s one reason “Dredd” can’t resurrect a character counted on to carry a number of future films, even if the reboot laps the lackluster original.
Urban is Dredd, part of a futuristic team that doesn’t just collar the bad guys but administers justice when necessary. Talk about time-saving innovations. Apparently the future doesn’t include a robust local chapter of the ACLU.
Parts of the U.S. have been wiped out by war, necessitating this new brand of crime fighting. And enforcers like Dredd help maintain a semblance of peace in this crime-infested expanse along the east coast known as Mega-City One. The societal unemployment rates are so bad the Obama years would be considered the good ol’ days. Drug use is rampant, particularly a hot new elixir called Slo-Mo which lets director Pete Travis traffic in movie-halting camera tricks.
Dredd’ is paired with a wannabe cop with psychic powers. Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby) gets to take off her helmet to use her gifts, giving the plucky actress a perk poor Urban sorely needs.
The pair are called to investigate a homicide, a case which entraps them in a desolate apartment building the local crime lord calls home. If this scenario intrigues you, consider “The Raid: Redemption” which follows a similar plot but plays out in more satisfying, bone-crunching fashion.
“Dredd” does its best to measure up to “The Raid’s” level of catastrophe. This is one violent film, with vicious killings, betrayals and gore seeping into scene after scene. The film’s visual effects routinely impress, as does the computer-generated set design, which makes the mayhem all the more eye popping.
Lena Headey plays that rare creation, a scarred female villain who dishes out pain even better than the fellas. Her character doesn’t generate enough heat beyond the atypical casting, and a subplot involving rogue enforcers is similarly weak.
A great actor might find a way to bring life to a faceless hero. Maybe. Urban offers superhuman scowls and gritty line readings, but Dredd never emerges as a character who demands his own franchise. Peter Weller, given a more thoughtful script with plenty on its mind, fared better with the original “RoboCop.”
Fans of the source material, a gritty Brit-based comic strip, will gleefully read much more into every move Urban makes while newbies squint at the sparkling high-def images to see what the fuss is all about.
“Mega-City Masters: 35 Years of Judge Dredd” offers a neat look back at the character in question. Dredd came of age at roughly the same time as another science fiction project, a little film called “Star Wars.” The saga’s thrust had more to do with synergy. We learn from the creators that the rise of Margaret Thatcher to power and fears of a fascist state – blended in with some America mockery – epitomized the comic’s sly satirical humor.
“Day of Chaos: The Visual Effects of Dredd” is a crisp, informative featurette describing how the artistic team built “Dredd” from the street up. The film itself may not live on as its creators hoped, but its visual template could influence science fiction features to come.