While largely set in a dystopian future United States, Judge Dredd is one of the most popular comic creations to come out of Britain in the past 50 years.
First introduced in the second issue of weekly comic 2000 AD in 1977, it soon became the publication's most popular series.
In 1995 British film-maker Danny Cannon filmed it as Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone in the titular role. Most critics and hardcore Dredd fans hated it, and it bombed at the box office. In the comic strip Dredd never removed his helmet. Only his mouth and chin were visible. But Stallone's entire face is shown in some scenes in Judge Dredd.
Now it's the turn of Wellington actor Karl Urban - who has made a solid Hollywood career in action films since The Lord of the Rings - to don the helmet and become police officer, judge, jury and executioner in the violent Mega City One. Only this time, most of his face is hidden for the entire time.
Urban starred in Doom and has had strong parts in several films, including The Bourne Supremacy. But Dredd is his biggest to date and one that was sought-after due to the level of talent involved, including writer Alex Garland, best known for The Beach.
''I read the script and thought Alex Garland had delivered a solid, action-packed, character-driven narrative,'' says Urban. ''As a long-term fan of Dredd, I felt pretty confident that the sum of the creative elements involved would ensure that the material was well executed.
''I flew to LA, met with the director, the producers, and Alex Garland. It was pretty clear that we were all on the same page. They wanted to make sure that I would not get halfway through shooting and demand scenes in which Dredd would remove his helmet. I told them that I wouldn't have bothered taking the meeting if I had read the script and found a scene where he was not wearing it. That seemed to go down well cause a couple of days later they called me up and invited me to play. That was a good day.''
Urban says he liked that Garland was on the set during all the filming, which took place in South Africa over four months. ''If I had a question about the intention behind a beat, I would consult with Alex. He wrote the character. You can either drink from the source or go downstream. I chose the former.''
Director Pete Travis had mostly worked in television and Dredd was also his biggest project. Urban says he did find that while Travis and Garland had a strong vision of the Judge Dredd character, they did listen to the actor.
''The experience of making Dredd is without a doubt one of the most rewarding collaborative experiences I've had,'' says Urban. ''Sometimes writers and directors are over-protective of their work. The good ones, like Alex Garland, will listen to others, and if the idea is sound they'll embrace it. On Dredd, Alex met with the Dredd creator John Wagner, Wagner read the script and loved it, [but] one of Wagner's few notes was 'Dredd says less'. So Alex reduced the volume of Dredd's dialogue. Then, in Cape Town, Alex and I had a pre shoot script meeting. I opened my script and Alex saw these big black lines through the dialogue. He asked me why I had done that. I said 'I love this dialogue mate, but Dredd says less'.''
In the comic strip, part of Dredd's charm was that he was enigmatic. Urban says the key for him was to find the humanity in Dredd. ''He's just a man, a man with an extraordinary skill set, a smart mind and a dry sense of humour. He's the type of guy who is walking toward the danger while everyone else is busy running in the opposite direction.''
More difficult was conveying Dredd's emotion and expressions with a face partly hidden by a visor. ''It's a huge challenge to communicate with an audience without the use of your eyes. It was important to utilise all the tools available, the voice, the body. How you physically do what you do takes on a heightened significance, and knowing when not to react was equally important. The really interesting discovery was simply having the faith that if you think the thought and feel the emotion, then the audience will too, even without seeing your eyes.''
One of the most impressive aspects to Dredd is the costumes and sets, which echo much of what was conveyed in the comic strip. They look grittier and more convincing than the 1995 film. So did he have a magic moment when he first donned the costume? ''Wearing full motorbike leathers and body armour in the height of a South African summer provided a lot of magic moments - most of them moist,'' he jokes.
''But as uncomfortable as it often could be, it was worth it when we shot scenes like the bike chase. There are a few points in your career where you can't believe that they're actually letting you do this: the Moscow car chase with Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy was one and riding that bike in full Dredd mode through the streets of Cape Town was definitely another.''
Urban first read Judge Dredd comics when he was a teenager and is very aware of the strong fan base. But he is confident Dredd will win the fans over, as well as those unfamiliar with the character. An important aspect to this is that the film has got an R rating due to its gritty tone and violence. ''The success of any film is determined by many factors: the quality of the product, the marketing, the rating and particularly, as far as the US is concerned, the time of year the film is released,'' he says.
''Dredd has its work cut out for it in the US because it's an R-rated film that's being released in the fall, but we're confident the positive buzz is building.''
And while he plays a judge, Urban knows the jury is still out on how Dredd may impact on his life and career. Does he expect less anonymity? ''The more successful you become the less anonymity you have. Nothing's going to change that equation.''
- © Fairfax NZ News
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