Fingers crossed that Boston’s future doesn’t bear much resemblance to the dystopian version imagined in “Dredd 3D.” In the ultraviolent new film, adapted from Britain’s long-running “Judge Dredd” comic books by director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point”) and writer Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”), we’re told first thing that Boston has melted into Mega-City One. It’s a post-apocalyptic sprawl that stretches to Washington, D.C. The population stands at 800 million, and the authorities are so overmatched that they can respond to only a few hundred of the 12,000 crimes reported daily.
Hence the city has its judges, cops empowered to aggressively expedite the system by doubling as instant jury and executioner. And if that’s not deterrent enough, there’s also their intimidating uniform: a dark-visored biker helmet and leather jacket whose eagle accents suggest fascism as much as patriotism.
New Zealand-bred Karl Urban, who stars as Dredd, has doffed the helmet in favor of a stylish slate blue suit for a local publicity stop at — where else? — the Liberty Hotel. (The former Charles Street jail hosts
promo-blitzing filmmakers and actors all the time, but rarely with such thematic appropriateness.) Since he spends the entire movie with only his chiseled jaw visible, he is recognizable mainly from the many other genre roles he has played: Dr. McCoy in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise, royal warrior Eomer in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Caesar in “Xena: Warrior Princess,” to name a few.
You guess Urban must know something of Tom Hardy’s dramatically hamstrung pain at having his face half-concealed for “The Dark Knight Rises.” But the actor insists that he embraced Dredd’s signature look. “I wear a helmet for the duration, and the character keeps his emotions in check,” he says in his Kiwi accent, displaying no trace of Dredd’s American growl, but a similar serious-mindedness. “The challenge was how to communicate with an audience, given that narrow bandwith.
“But the enigma of Dredd is such an embodiment of the character as an icon, doing it any other way was inconceivable for me,” he continues. “He’s like a contemporized version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.” And just as laconic: In one of the movie’s driest bits, a police dispatcher monitoring an early, out-of-control chase asks, “Do you require backup?” Dredd: “No.” (We would have given a spoiler alert here, but the moment really is all about hearing Urban’s perfect delivery.)
It’s no coincidence that in the comics, of all the towering housing “blocks” found in Mega-City One, Rowdy Yates Block is the one Dredd calls home, in a nod to Eastwood’s “Rawhide.” “Dirty Harry” in particular seems to have informed the character, who was first cooked up by writers John Wagner and Pat Mills and artist Carlos Ezquerra for the British comics anthology “2000 AD” back in 1977. “‘Dredd’ is set within what is essentially a totalitarian society,” says Urban, 40, who first read the character in his youth. “Democracy is found to be flawed and irresponsible. Millions of people died at the hands of decisions that were made by a corrupt president. The judges have come out from the courtrooms and taken control, but they’re struggling. It’s chaos.”
The character’s formative timeline is significant: While “Judge Dredd” is often cited as a product and satire of the Margaret Thatcher era in Britain, the strip actually preceded Thatcher’s administration by a couple of years. It was a prescient, punk-subversive sketch of more hardline conservatism to come.
In another reflection of that creative sensibility, those early Judge Dredd stories were gleefully littered with out-there characters and elements. One nemesis was Judge Death, Dredd’s skeletal, Bizarro World opposite number, who ruled that life itself was a crime. (Discuss.) The irradiated wastes outside the walls of Mega-City One were known as the Cursed Earth, populated by freaks such as Mean Machine, a cyborg with dial-up settings ranging from surly to brutal. Even the city’s misdemeanor offenders and rank-and-file citizenry were often carny-colorful. The gonzo atmosphere was as big a selling point as the hero himself, if not bigger.
During his own stop at the Liberty Hotel with last year’s “Source Code,” rising genre director Duncan Jones, admitting to a bit of “Dredd” envy, shared an unrealized pitch for tackling the material from precisely this perspective. “I thought it would be great to approach it as a documentary following another guy through this incredibly interesting, crazy world,” Jones said, “with Judge Dredd as a character whose influence has terrified the city, but who’s only seen in cameos.” Laughing, he added, “Obviously that’s not an easy sell: I’m going to make the Judge Dredd movie, but he’s hardly going to be in it.”
Hollywood’s prior stab at the character was Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 “Judge Dredd,” a notorious flop that seemed to vaguely grasp that the comics had a unique tone, yet had little clue how to translate it. You get the idea that Urban consistently shorthands the character’s name as Dredd not just from familiarity, but to avoid unwanted associations with the earlier incarnation. (One local highlight amid the lowlights: the special effects were by Mass.Illusion, a Lenox-based operation, now defunct, that sprang from a technical community gathered by “2001” effects pioneer and Berkshires resident Douglas Trumbull.)
Stallone’s movie had Rob Schneider tag along with Dredd for strained comic relief, and mostly didn’t bother with the character’s helmet — an understandable move when producers had shelled out for a star of Stallone’s magnitude, but still. As Wagner was quoted as saying in a guidebook to the comics, the helmet “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.”
Keeping Dredd minimalistically real, again, is fine by Urban. “One thing I love about this film is that you’re presented with a fully formed hero,” he says. “There’s no overarching back story about how he got bit by a spider and turned into a superhero. What you see is what you get.
“It’s similar to old serials, and what Spielberg did with Indiana Jones,” he continues. “What do we know about Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? Nothing. We just launch straight into one of his adventures. And that’s what we do here.”
Chatting with Urban, there’s a sense that his genre appreciation extends beyond an actor’s routine professional interest. His filmography also includes “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Chronicles of Riddick,” the comics-derived “RED,” and last year’s neo-vampire flick, “Priest.” But the characters have been sufficiently varied that it’s clear he’s not just riding some typecasting wave. When he got the opportunity to do his subtly spot-on DeForest Kelley impression in “Trek,” he had already done his homework — a couple of years before hearing about the project, he had plowed through the entire series on DVD with his older son, just for kicks. And his younger son’s name is, yes, Indiana.
Urban gets a chance to further feed his affinity next year with the latest “Trek” sequel, as well as a quick encore in Vin Diesel’s new “Riddick” installment. But ply him for even the tiniest scoop about what’s in store for Bones and director J.J. Abrams’s Enterprise crew, and he draws his mouth tighter than Dredd’s. “Well, it’s called ‘Star Trek Into Darkness,’” he deadpans, repeating a reveal that hit the blogosphere a zillion star dates ago. (Or last week, anyway.) He won’t be spilling any secrets today.
What’s not so secret is the stamp Urban ultimately hopes to put on Judge Dredd mythology. “My take on Dredd is that he’s like a panther ready to spring,” he says. “He’s a tough character struggling to contain his emotion, rather than a bombastic one releasing his emotion. That, to me, is always far more interesting.”