The first adaptation for Judge Joseph Dredd was 1995's Judge Dredd, an overblown summer movie in which Sylvester Stallone played the hero, with Rob Schneider as his plucky comic relief sidekick. Even 17 years later, the film is still the subject of well-earned mockery. The approach with Dredd, however, is grimmer, dirtier, and altogether truer to the character than from that iteration.
"When I read the script, it became obvious to me that what we were endeavoring to do was completely different," Urban said. "Tonally, you couldn’t get more different. Going into this movie I watched the Stallone version to see what worked and what didn’t work. The way that I approached the character was not to have the character be a posturing, bellowing character that was kind of grounded in ego. To me, that wasn’t the Dredd that I knew. To me, it was far more interesting to have a character with this inner rage and struggling to contain it, rather than letting it all explode. That’s the direction that I was going in. I decided that what I wanted to do was find the humanity within Dredd, because he’s just a man. He’s not a superhero. He’s a cloned man, but he’s just a man. And he’s not a superhero. He doesn’t have superhero powers. His heroism is defined by the fact that he’s walking into a building while everybody else is running out. He does the things that most people wouldn’t dare to do in real life."
"That was the challenge, and especially a huge challenge to convey all this without the use of eyes," he continued. Like his comic book counterpart, the hero of Dredd is never seen without his helmet, which obscures the upper half of his face. "The character oscillates from being a protector to being incredibly violent to having this wry, sardonic humor, displaying compassion, protecting citizens, unleashing the violence. There’s all these different aspects. For me, the challenge was how to convey as much as I could. There’s a wariness too about the character which is really important. The challenge was, how do I convey all that without the eyes?"
When reading the script for the first time, Urban was thrilled to find that Dredd's headgear stayed in place the entire time, and that fidelity was a major part of his interest in the film. Rather than being daunted by spending the entire movie with only half his face visible, Urban relished the challenge, saying, "You have to look at all the other tools that are available to you. Your voice becomes extremely important. In my research I discovered a passage in one of the comic strips that described Dredd’s voice as a saw cutting through bone. So that was kind of the starting point for my character. What you feel and hear in the movie is my approximation of what that is. I wanted to do something that was distinctly different from the shouting, bellowing Dredd. That was of no interest to me. That’s how that evolved. Other tools were the physicality. What can I express with my movement? The wariness. When’s he tired? When’s he really struggling to contain his rage? Post-massacre in the film, there’s a gear shift that you can sense and feel in Dredd with the way he’s treating a prisoner of his. And then he goes to town and starts taking it out on the guy. So, the physicality becomes very, very important. And then it’s also really important to identify where the humor lies. That’s one of the things I really loved in the comic is just the really dry, dark humor. So that became an important element as well."
The process of preparing to play Dredd involved physical commitment and a serious appraisal of the comic book stories from which the movie springs. "First of all, I spent 13 weeks in a gym lifting heavy things, eating seven times a day, just to get physically where I needed to be with the character, to feel like the character," Urban explained. "Then, there was the part of the process that I like the most, which is the investigative part, and that was getting my hands on every graphic novel I could. The real wonderful thing was that I discovered a whole lot of new stories, Dredd stories that I wasn’t aware of, that had come out subsequent to my reading Dredd when I was a teenager – stories like Origins and The Dead Man’s Walk into Necropolis and America. These are all really great stories. There’s a wonderful maturity that had developed in Wagner’s storytelling where a seed of doubt had been planted in this character about the sort of semi-fascist cop who was a desperate solution in a desperate time. And he gets to a point in these stories where he’s starting to question that. To me, that’s just fascinating. The opening 20 years is just this guy doing a job and then suddenly there’s this switch and there’s this change in how the character’s written. He becomes a lot more complex and interesting. And that was one of the things that I wanted to try and seed in this movie was the beginning of that wariness."
Asked what thoughts were running through his head the first time he donned the costume, the actor replied, "I was probably thinking, 'How the fuck am I going to do this?' That was part of the process, was being in that costume and getting used to it. That took time. I wore it every day for two weeks before actually stepping in front of the camera and it still took more time to get used to it. It had its limitations. I don’t think it was as limiting as what I’ve heard about the Batman costume for Christian [Bale]. It really helped inform me how the character moved."
In Dredd, the eponymous judge is on a routine assignment accompanied by a rookie, played by Olivia Thirlby. The duo find themselves trapped in the high rise building where the drug Slo-Mo is manufactured, surrounded by murderous enemies and with only one option: fight their way to the top floor. On that top floor is the film's primary villain, a criminal overlord known as Ma-Ma Madrigal. Lena Headey of 300 and Game of Thrones plays Madrigal, and Urban believes she created an appropriate foe for Dredd. "This is just my personal opinion," he said. "I think there is a scary, beautiful, violent, way off-beat, amazing performance that Lena has delivered in this film. She’s enigmatic. You’re drawn to her when she’s on the screen. The choices that she made were so interesting. I have to confess, there was one day we were shooting the scene where I’m confronting her and we’re at opposite ends of the room and I’ve got my helmet on looking at her and she’s looking at me. And she just starts laughing, manically laughing. And I just feel within me the rage growing. She is that fucking good. She knows how to push your buttons."
Unlike reboots such as The Amazing Spider-Man or Batman Begins, Dredd does not double back to tell Dredd's origin story, but instead presents him as-is from the start, an approach of which Urban approved, saying, "That’s what I love about this movie. This is not your traditional set-up movie. This is not like Nolan’s first Batman where we get a big backstory about Dredd. That’s what I love about it, you don’t. You come straight in -- the first set-up with the car chase with the perp getting his instant justice. All you need to know there is that girl whose life he saved turns to him at the end and says, 'Thank you Judge.' Right there you know what he’s there to do. It’s as simple as that."
Dredd hits theaters in 2D and 3D on September 21st.