They're just four small words. But for movie fans not well-acquainted with a long-running comic book series about sci-fi supercops, these words might be all they know about Judge Dredd: "I AM THE LAW!"
They're famously shouted by Sylvester Stallone in 1995's Judge Dredd, as Dredd is attempting to arrest two warring gangs in the dystopian future slums of Mega-City One. Clips of Stallone's hilarious mush-mouthed bellowing have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and the movie itself is remembered, at best, as a campy sci-fi relic of a decade gone by.
Having to overcome this pre-fab silliness to reimagine Judge Dredd in 2012 might seem like a problem. But for it to be a problem, you'd have to actually care. And frankly, Alex Garland doesn't give a flying drokk.
"On some level, without being in any way disrespectful to the other film, it was irrelevant," says Garland, the writer and producer of Dredd, opening in theatres Friday.
Sly Stallone, irrelevant? Rob Schneider, irrelevant? "I AM THE LAW!" irrelevant?
"Look, the comic's been going 35 years. It's had a bunch of different writers and artists," Garland says of the weekly British sci-fi anthology 2000 AD, which gave birth to Dredd in 1977. "They approach it in different ways. As far as I'm concerned, you just see (1995's Judge Dredd) like that. That was a bunch of people doing their take on it, we've put a different take on it."
Directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point), Dredd stars Karl Urban as the titular stone-faced future lawman, a far cry from the sarcastic but good-hearted Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy he plays in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. Urban has carved quite a niche for himself in these kinds of genre roles, with a resume that includes The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy and Doom. (Interestingly, other than 2006's critically acclaimed Out of the Blue, he hasn't done a film in the last 10 years that required him to speak in his native New Zealand accent.)
"The 1995 movie was a product of its time, and has to be thought of in that context," Urban says. "Our film, tonally, couldn't be more different. It's edgier, it's grittier, it's harder, it nails the humour, and at the fundamental core of this film it's a character-driven story. It's a story about the relationship between a Judge and his rookie."
Dredd and the rookie, Judge Cassandra Anderson (Juno's Olivia Thirlby, sporting blonde locks and a steely gaze), are ordered to investigate a triple murder in a 200-storey slum tower within the heart of Mega-City One's sprawling urban wasteland.
When the homicidal drug lord Ma-Ma (Game of Thrones' Lena Headey) catches wind that there's a pair of Judges on her turf, she has the building locked down and orders her minions to kill the cops. Dredd and Anderson's only hope of escape is to fight their way to the top of the tower and deal with Ma-Ma personally.
It's a simple, straightforward and very violent yarn, and one that doesn't waste time on a long and involved set-up.
"One of the key things about Dredd is you don't need an origin story the way you need an origin story for Spider-Man," says Garland, whose writing credits include 28 Days Later, Sunshine and the trippy Leo DiCaprio thriller The Beach.
"Dredd's a guy, he's not really a superhero. He's from the lineage of westerns and Dirty Harry. He's really just a futuristic fascist cop who's really good at his job."
Actors emoting in the shadows
Fans of the Judge Dredd comics know that one of the defining things about the character is you never see his entire face. Ever. Not once in 35 years of weekly comic book instalments.
All that went out the window in 1995's Judge Dredd, when Sylvester Stallone seemed to doff his helmet at the drop of a hat, pun very much intended. But in the grittier, more faithful adaptation Dredd, Karl Urban's face is glimpsed only from the nose down.
He's not the first actor who's had to emote through some sort of mask for an entire movie, but even Tom Hardy's portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises allowed him to use his eyes. All Urban had was his chin.
"It was a huge challenge," Urban says. "It was an exercise in figuring out how I could communicate with the audience. The voice takes on a real significance, a real importance, as does the physicality of the character."
Wearing a custom-built motorcycle helmet for his entire time on camera was only part of the sartorial challenge for Urban. Although the costume designers on Dredd nixed the over-the-top shoulder pads and shiny gold chains seen in the comics, Urban's armour still consisted of several heavy layers. Not ideal when shooting in South Africa, especially when the air conditioning on the sound stages frequently broke down.
"I would literally take off that armour and the leathers at the end of the day and be drenched," Urban says. "It was a moist experience."
Dredd: Stallone vs. Urban
Who makes the better Dredd? We look at Sylvester Stallone (1995's Judge Dredd) and Karl Urban (2012's Dredd) side by side and pass judgment.
Stallone: The costume is a fairly faithful representation of the comic book character's, with a few elements toned down. But that codpiece - yeesh.
Urban: Looking like a practical blend of body armour and motorcycle leathers, his costume is likely to make criminals cower rather than laugh at his junk.
Stallone: Too shiny and glossy, but the biggest sin is how often he takes it off in the movie. In 35 years of comics, Dredd has never shown his entire face.
Urban: His headgear is a fully functioning motorcycle helmet, and has the proper little "X" motif above the nose. More importantly, he never removes it.
Stallone: Herman Ferguson, a weaselly computer hacker played by Rod Schneider.
Urban: Cassandra Anderson, a beautiful rookie Judge played by Olivia Thirlby.
Stallone: "I AM THE LAW!" shouted hammily at perps waging war in a slum and at a tribunal that has wrongly accused Dredd of murder.
Urban: "I am the law," spoken menacingly over a P.A. system to the residents of a locked-down slum tower run by a ruthless drug queen.
OTHER MOVIE BADASSERY
Stallone: Rocky, Rambo, Tango & Cash, The Expendables
Urban: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy, Doom
Winner: Stallone, if only because he has a higher body count
OVERALL WINNER: If it came down to these two judges, our jury would weigh on the side of Karl Urban's 2012 Dredd. He is the law.