On “Game of Thrones,” Lena Headey plays Cersei Lannister, the diabolical but damaged queen who hides behind a face of royal beauty, but fans of the HBO medieval epic might need a moment to recognize the British actress in the sci-fi film “Dredd,” which is scheduled to arrive in September. Like Cersei, Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal ruthlessly puts down all challenges to her authority, but her scarred face is no facade — it’s more like a map of the cruel metropolis called Mega City One.
In a world scorched and sickened by radiation wars, Mega City One is one of the last pockets of civilization but it tests the bottom limits of the word. Madrigal is the fierce gang leader who rules Peach Tree City Block and that puts her squarely in the sights of the film’s title character, Judge Joseph Dredd — played by Karl Urban of “Star Trek” and “The Bourne Supremacy” — the most feared of the city’s Street Judges, the elite armored agents who bring the entire criminal justice system to the sidewalk; they are arresting officer, judge, jury and, yes, executioner.
The film has being called a remake of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film “Judge Dredd,” but it might be more precise to think of it as do-over adaptation; in his 35th anniversary, Judge Dredd remains the most iconic creation of the British comics scene, but none of the savage and scabby spirit of those comics (think “Dirty Harry” on patrol in the “Death Race” world) reached the screen in the glossy bloat of the Stallone film.
The first Judge Dredd comic premiered in March 1977 — the same month the Clash released their first single, “White Riot,” and the Sex Pistols signed a contract with A&M Records at the gates of Buckingham Palace. All of London seemed up for grabs, and the choices seemed like anarchy or fascism. Headey, during a recent interview at the offices of HBO in Santa Monica, says the goal of this new “Dredd” was to get back to the blood-bruise qualities of those comics.
“The world [in the film] feels really British, and I don’t know if that’s because it’s so dirty and dark,” Headey said. “And it’s … violent. Just in terms of gunplay, they’re not afraid to show blood and gunshot wounds. And it’s set up in this concrete sort of shanty town — it’s shanty but they’re blocks — concrete favelas.”
With that backdrop, many citizens are ready to accept the glowering Dredd with his Lawgiver pistol and police-state promise. Others, however, would rather escape with Slo-Mo, the reality-bending drug that is funneling though Madrigal’s gang.
Madrigal was conceived as a much older character, in her 70s or older, but Headey won over Alex Garland, the screenwriter and a key engine of the project, to the idea of a middle-aged woman who has logged a lot of city miles.
“She’s a prostitute who then kills her pimp and takes over his drug-running business,” said Headey, whose acting credits include Queen Gorgo in “300” and the title role in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” “And Ma-Ma is a bit of a man-hater.”
Headey said she came up with the image of a sullen and cynical predator to help her find an entry point to the role.
“I think of her like an old great white shark who is just waiting for someone bigger and stronger to show up and kill her,” Headey said. “She’s ready for it. In fact, she can’t wait for it to happen. And yet no one can get the job done. She’s an addict, so she’s dead in that way, but that last knock just hasn’t come. This big, fat, scarred shark moving through the sea and everyone flees and she’s like, ‘Will someone just have the balls to do it? Please?‘”
The big question in the air around “Dredd” is whether the Lionsgate film is actually going to be any good. There were reports that director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point”) was fired during post-production, but then a released statement insisted that he was still onboard and that he and Garland (“28 Days Later”) had agreed early on to share duties in an unorthodox way. (You can read the back-and-forth of it all at 24 Frames.) Working with Garland was the draw for Headey.
“‘Dredd’ was a weird, little, out-of-the-blue thing for me,” Headey said. “We met up and I read, and he kind of loved what I did and I loved the script. I think he’s a brilliant writer, he’s good guy, Alex. So I ended going out to South Africa to shoot this mad thing. In terms of the scale of the movie, the budget was tiny.”
Indeed, the film has a lean budget — reportedly $55 million to $60 million — but an approach of austerity and bleak shadow may actually help the film separate itself from the shiny sci-fi of the 1995 movie (which also had an especially odd cast that included Diane Lane, Max von Sydow, Rob Schneider and rock star Ian Dury).
That version, directed by Danny Cannon (who would go to be an executive producer and director on all three “CSI” franchises), infuriated longtime Dredd readers by jettisoning the dark satire of the comics, adding a romance for the title character and daring to let Dredd walk around without his helmet, which is akin to letting the Lone Ranger ride into town without a mask. Adding insult to injury, those fans would hear again and again that “Mad Max” and “RoboCop” took direct inspiration from the Dredd comics and produced genre classics — while the character’s own spotlight moment ended up as a dim-bulb project.
But will the lawman’s second shot be any closer to the target? At least this time the project has started with the correct ammunition, judging by the comments of Urban, who grew up as a Dredd fan: “It’s going to be much more gritty, much more real — the environment, Mega City One, is going to feel like a real city,” the actor told Chris Tilly of IGN back in 2010. “It’s not going to feel like a Hollywood back lot. There will be no gold cod-pieces, and we’re definitely going to stay faithful to the way that the character was originally conceived and written. He’ll keep his helmet on.”
— Geoff Boucher
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