The release yesterday of the first real look at Karl Urban as Judge Dredd sent a certain portion of the nerdiverse, myself included, into geekgasm. It’s great to finally see the character up close. Every still we’ve seen up to now, coupled with Alex Garland’s taut, claustrophobic script, shows that Dredd The Movie is going to be a grim and gritty affair. The man in his scuffed bike leathers and stubble owes as much to Mad Max as the version we see every week in 2000AD.
I still think the helmet’s too big. But then, in the comic it has to serve as the top half of his head. Some artists have drawn it as so close-fitting that it would be impossible to get off. Either that, or Joe Dredd has made the ultimate sacrifice, and shaved off his ears. Urban’s hat is as close as dammit to the one that I have been drawing since I was 9, with the obvious exception of having to serve a real world purpose.
Of course, we’re now a world away from the Stallone version with the spandex and gold-plated plastic and the talking gun and flying bike. I cannot in all honesty defend the 1995 movie, although the first ten minutes is a very fine adaptation of the “Block War!” story. And goddamn, Stallone has the chin for the job. But I’m a purist, and the moment the hat came off was the moment that I lost interest.
Of course, you could argue that Dredd has taken his helmet off and we have indeed seen his face. At which point I’d note that you can’t fool a fanboy, because it’s clear you’re talking about The Dead Man. This was a spin-off strip set in The Cursed Earth that followed a drifter, burnt beyond all recognition, who is taken in by a friendly family of mutants. But the man has a past, and it hasn’t finished with him. The big reveal, that few readers saw coming was that The Dead Man was an amnesiac Dredd, left for dead by The Dark Sisters Of The Apocalypse.
This story is a major milestone in the Judge’s long history, and I’d argue it ties him much more explicitly to the fictional exploits of another iconic loner, Clint Eastwood. If Dredd in MegaCity is Dirty Harry, then in The Dead Man he has become, quite literally, The Man With No Name. Scarred and haunted, he becomes a clear analogue to the ghostly avengers of westerns like Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter. The look, though, is clearly based on William Munny in Unforgiven. His return to Megacity and Judgehood is marked by reconstructive surgery. The glimpse at Dredd’s face that we get in The Dead Man is fleeting and illusory. For the most part, we are left with the early legend that he is simply too ugly to be looked at directly.
The fact that we never see Dredd’s face is kind of the point. He was imagined as an avatar of justice, soul-less, almost machinelike in his single minded dedication to The Law (always capitalised, as much an abstract concept as a set of rules). Through the last 34 years and thousands of progs, he has become much more, while still staying true to the core idea. He’s a cipher, on which any number of stories can be hung.
I’m pleased that the makers of the movie have embraced the unwritten rule of the character, and the helmet will be staying firmly on Karl Urban’s head. besides, as any fan knows, the face of Dredd is not the most important part…