- - Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If you’re like most people, you probably remember little of the 1995 science fiction film, “Judge Dredd.” And if you remember anything at all, it’s probably Sylvester Stallone’s memorably over-the-top portrayal of the title character and his thundering, catchphrase-ready personal mission statement: “I am the law!”

Despite the movie’s less-than-thunderous reviews and near-total box office failure (it brought in less than $35 million on a $90 million budget), the character lives on, and has returned to the big screen. Moviegoers will get another chance to acquaint themselves with the burly sci-fi enforcer in “Dredd 3D,” which opens in theaters Friday.

In many ways, Dredd makes an unlikely Hollywood hero. Tinseltown prizes loveable strivers who become better people. Dredd, by contrast, is boorish, pathologically relentless, violent, emotionally vacant and almost comically unlikeable — at least one Dredd story has been devoted to his abiding hatred of Christmas. And yet the character has survived for decades, and is once again getting a (relatively) big-budget Hollywood treatment. What is it that makes this one-note cartoon cop endure?

Chalk it up to his ability to reflect the sensibility of the times. Mr. Stallone’s take mixed comic hijinks with action-movie heroism and middling quality special effects. It was an exercise in exuberant camp, with Mr. Stallone’s blustery performance — a knowing riff on the actor’s gruff ‘80s action hero persona — as its centerpiece.

This year’s version, which stars Karl Urban in the title role, promises a grimmer, grittier, more outrageously violent take on the character. In the trailers, Mr. Urban once again makes use of Mr. Stallone’s declaration, “I am the law.” But rather than Mr. Stallone’s scenery-chewing bellow, Mr. Urban delivers the line through gritted teeth in a sandpapery whisper.

It’s a telling departure. Just as the first film reflected the jolly frivolity of the 1990s, Hollywood’s updated take on Dredd promises to capture the gloomier spirit of a country slowly slogging its way out of a deep and painful recession.

But long before the character reached the big screen, Judge Dredd was made by his creators to reflect the social attitudes of the moment. Indeed, Dredd was originally conceived as a satirical response to perceived creeping authoritarianism in pre-Thatcherite England; since 1977, the character has been a staple of the British comic “2000 AD,” a weekly anthology of pulp and science-fiction adventures that has featured Dredd in more than a thousand issues.

John Wagner, who co-created the character in 1977 and has penned many of his adventures since, has said that he created Dredd as a response to the era’s rising British right wing. In the comics, Dredd plays judge, jury, and executioner as one of the Judges of Mega-City One, an overpopulated city surrounded by a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland.

“He seemed to capture the mood of the age,” Mr. Wagner told the BBC in 2002. “He was a hero and a villain.”

Despite the character’s left-leaning political origins, many of the early stories revolved around common conservative worries. Street crime, density, and joblessness haunt those tales, as do fears of mass madness.

To a great extent, the early Dredd comics are as much about Mega-City One, the sprawling future city he helps police, as about the character of Dredd himself. Many of the earliest Dredd stories can be read as dark comic riffs on lawlessness, economic despair and urban decay — the same fears and anxieties that helped launch conservative politicians such as Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan into prominence in the 1980s.

The early Dredd tales are not critical of those fears so much as the freewheeling authoritarian response that Dredd represents. But it’s telling that Mr. Wagner’s presentation was sufficiently subtle in early issues that he actually received letters from readers who supported Dredd and the Judges system.

Even the satirical instinct behind that system is as libertarian as it is liberal: It’s premised on a distrust of authority in general and state power in specific.

Later takes on the character would reimagine him as a more conventional action hero, a brooding and ruthless avenger in the style of so many 1980s comic book characters.

Part of the reason it was so easy to change the character was that he was made intentionally anonymous. Early in the character’s life, his creators made a decision never to show his face, except in a few distant childhood flashbacks. He isn’t a person so much as a symbol — a hero, a villain, a monster, a savior or something in between. He is the law, and whatever his creators want it to be.