Should I Watch..? 'Judge Dredd'
What's the big deal?
Judge Dredd is an action sci-fi film released in 1995 and is based on the comics character of the same name created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. Directed by Danny Cannon, the film is set in a dystopian future where Judges have the ability to process justice on the streets on Mega-City One. The most iconic Judge, Judge Dredd, finds himself framed for a murder he did not commit and must stop his psychotic half-brother Rico from unleashing devastation on the run-down populace. The film stars Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Diane Lane, Rob Schneider, Max Von Sydow and Jürgen Prochnow. The film was panned upon release by critics who savaged Stallone's performance, the film's lack of originality and inconsistency with the source material. However, while still widely regarded as one of the worst films of Stallone's career, the film also received praise for its effects and costumes designed by Gianni Versace. The film is widely considered to be a flop after global takings of $113.5 million and is considered the weakest adaptation of the character following a 2012 reboot called Dredd.
What's it about?
After a vast ecological collapse, most of the world has become a barren wasteland inhabited by mutants and the dregs of society. Most people live in vast metropolises like Mega-City One which is home to an ever-rampant crime-wave, persistent urban deprivation and the Judges - the only things standing between the law and total anarchy. Each Judge is equipped with a Lawgiver pistol with multiple firing modes as well as the ability to issue criminal sentences on the spot, from incarceration and fines to death. By 2139, the rookie Judge Hershey is assigned to assist legendary Judge Joseph Dredd in ending a block war.
Unknown to Dredd, his half brother and former Judge Rico has been sprung from prison and is intent on bringing Dredd down. Rico frames Dredd for the murder of a journalist and he is sentenced to life in prison by a tribunal of fellow Judges including his mentor Chief Justice Fargo. En route to a remote penal colony, Dredd finds himself working alongside recently jailed hacker Herman "Fergie" Ferguson (a man Dredd himself jailed) in order to escape and fight the system he has spent his life enforcing.
Judge Joseph Dredd
Judge Barbara Hershey
Herman "Fergie" Ferguson
Max Von Sydow
Chief Justice Fargo
Dr Ilsa Hayden
William Wisher & Steven E. de Souza*
Release Date (UK)
21st July, 1995
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Actor (Stallone)
What's to like?
Even with films as widely disliked as Judge Dredd, I always try to find the positive first. And to be honest, there's actually quite a lot to admire here. It looks and feels like a big budget picture - Mega-City One itself looks amazing, stretching off into a bleak horizon while still capturing the urban decay at street level. It might have something of Blade Runner about it but that's to be expected given how the comic was influenced by that film. There is also a more practical look to the film - take the comically crude robot that Rico hires as a bodyguard. It looks faintly silly but again, that fits in with the satirical nature of the comics.
Costumes are spot-on, maybe less practical in real-life than they are in the pages of 2000 AD but way more stunning. From the shiny gold shoulder pads to the aggressively styled codpieces, the characters look every bit as gaudy as you'd hope for. And while he's not everyone's cup of tea, I like the look of Stallone as Dredd. In my mind, Dredd sounds like a lunking meat-head and Stallone fits the part perfectly even if his ego still caused problems off-camera with the film's more audience-friendly tone. It is a great film to watch as a spectacle but if you're hoping for decent performances or a narrative that explores the extensive history of the character then I'm afraid you're out of luck.
- Director Cannon was so disheartened by Stallone's interference and creative control that he vowed never to work with a big name star again. Stallone later claimed that he felt the movie would work better as an action comedy although both Cannon and the screenwriters intended for a darker, more satirical product.
- The moment in the film when Dredd removes his helmet caused huge controversy among fans as Dredd never reveals his face (the one time he did, a censored box appeared). However, the studio were unlikely to keep the helmet on an actor as expensive as Stallone but the helmet stayed on Karl Urban in Dredd.
- This was the first film in history to be released simultaneously with a video game. Although the game used backdrops from the film in its levels, the game was based on a different story to the movie.
- The film shares several narrative similarities with the earlier Stallone film Demolition Man. Coincidentally, Schneider also starred in that film as well.
What's not to like?
So while Judge Dredd walks the walk, it sadly cannot talk the talk. Assante is laughably bad as Rico, full of wide-eyed ham and slurring his speech in such a way that I'm amazed Stallone didn't knock his block off. There is a dearth of support from the likes of Prochnow, Sydow and Lane who are all underused and much finer actors than this junk would suggest. But the worst cast member by far is Schneider, a man so painfully unfunny as the comedic sidekick that you laugh harder when he's not in shot. Why did this film need such a character in the first place? I don't associate a character like Dredd with slapstick comedy and as soon as Schneider appears, you know that any attempt at being a serious film is being jettisoned in favour of increased box office potential.
The story itself isn't that bad but kinda predictable and not helped by things we've seen before such as the partially destroyed Statue Of Liberty which we've seen in stuff like Cloverfield and Escape From New York. And the action scenes are perfectly acceptable, the film struggles to engage with you as a viewer. I can't pick out a single moment that made me like the film aside from the opening scenes where Stallone is under the famous helmet, looking the part. Even the trademark Lawmaster bikes look silly - they should be based on choppers or Harley Davidsons but instead look like pimped-out mopeds. Despite the $90 million budget and the obvious effort put into the effects and look of the film, it never feels like a quality product as Stallone and Assante go nose-to-nose with each other and mangle the dialogue.
Should I watch it?
Certainly, it pales compared to its reboot but Judge Dredd has to go down as one of the biggest missed opportunities in cinema history. This could have been a genuine game-changer if they'd stuck to the satire of the comics instead of becoming the very thing the character was intended to spoof. It looks great on screen but fans of the character will be up-in-arms at this film while the rest of us probably won't remember that much of it to care.
Great For: pandering to the fragile ego of its star, Versace shareholders, home commentaries
Not So Great For: fans of the comics, acting coaches, jaded action fans
What else should I watch?
Without question, Dredd is the superior film and it's not even close. Grittier and more visceral than Judge Dredd despite the obvious budgetary restraints, Karl Urban displays a better understanding of the character than Stallone and the film is much more in sync with the comic origins. Sadly, the film underperformed at the box office which appears to have scuppered plans for a sequel. But the film remains popular with fans and a suggested TV series starring Urban has been proposed as a way forward for the character. Watch this space...
Cinema has given audiences many glimpses into dystopian futures from the Mad Max series and RoboCop to Planet Of The Apes and Brazil. Japanese anime films are seemingly obsessed with depicting various futures which, inevitably, turn out to be less than great - Akira brought the medium to the attention of the wider world while the cyberpunk thriller Ghost In The Shell inspired numerous spin-offs and a Hollywood remake. And earlier this year, we finally saw Robert Rodriguez tackle another beloved anime remake with Alita: Battle Angel, a story of an amnesiac cyborg setting out to discover her past. While once again proving to be a visually stunning production, the film appears to have been narratively incoherent which suggests that once again, something has been lost in the translation.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox