Honestly, I’ve been wanting to get my opinionated mitts all over this film for some time. The 1995 Sylvester Stallone starring Judge Dredd movie is one of the most maligned comic book adaptations of all time. It gets a crazy amount of flak, some justified to be fair. Wait, was that a pun? It is by no means perfect… but… I think it deserves a little bit of defending. Now I’ll go over the films various problems for sure, but I want people to know this. I enjoy this film and I’m not afraid to say it. And I think that if you took the time to watch it again you may find yourself a little less quick to unfairly judge it.
Oh, that was a pun for sure.
Judge Dredd begins with a series of images and pages from the comic books it is based on flicking past the screen until the film’s logo appears over it. Now, stop me if I’m wrong but isn’t that very similar sounding to the Marvel films company ident? Coincidence? … Well yes, most likely but I spotted it last night after watching the film for the first time in about 10 years and it gave me a light chuckle. One thing that ident does though is tell you that the director of the film, Danny Cannon, at some point actually looked at the comics. Which more than I can say for some comic book movies out there. To be fair Danny Cannon was established as a Judge Dredd fan before stepping onto the film. I remember in one of the comics published at the time they showed a drawing he had done in collage of a poster for his vision of a Judge Dredd film. It was pretty much the poster for Bladerunner complete with Harrison Ford as Dredd. Clearly that was his aim when it came to making the big budget Hollywood movie because the love for Bladerunner is clear in the set design, which I’ll get to later.
The plot for this Judge Dredd film is actually a pretty solid base for the sort of stories you’d get from the comics. The film is set some way into the future where most of the United States has been ravaged by environmental disaster and war. As a result the country’s civilian population are packed into a giant city known as Mega City One. The Mega City One of the film seems to be a lot smaller than that of the comics though. At one point it is mentioned that the population is 65 million all packed into an area designed for 20 million. A far cry from the 800 million the city held at it’s peak in the comics. Anyway, the city is so out of control with crime and chaos that a elite law enforcement team was needed. This force called the Judges act as Judge, Jury and Executioner all in one. Not Police, Jury and Executioner as they are described at the start of the film in order to allow them to use the word “Judge” in the next line without risking alliteration.
God I do segue…
Right, story. Judge Dredd is the most feared of these Judges but after being set up for a crime he didn’t commit he is sent off to Aspen Prison to rot. Unfortunately for him, and us, he’s sent there with a perp he judged a few days earlier in the form of Rob Schneider. They get shot down and must travel back along the Cursed Earth to Mega City One in order to find the real criminals and bring them to justice. There’s more to it than that but it’s all irrelevant. It’s your typical betrayal and secret origins based story that you’d expect. The villain of the film is a guy called Rico played by Armand Assante. He was Dredd’s bestest friend in the academy but Dredd was forced to judge him one day when Rico decided that people are all guilty and so must all be judged. Fair enough, basic revenge plot for the villain. Except… Rico and Dredd are clones!!!! They’re brothers and all that jazz. Never mind that Rico looks nothing like Stallone, even if characters say they do. Rico was supposed to be executed but a corrupt Judge kept him alive in prison to exact this nefarious plan to restart the cloning project Dredd and Rico came from. Honestly, this is top grade nonsense of the highest order. So the story is dumb, and I usually hinge everything on story. So why do I enjoy the film?
Because it looks great. Because they managed to create the world of Mega City One really well. Because, at the time, there was no-one better suited to be Judge Dredd than Sylvester Stallone. I just love the shit out of all the design work that went into this film. There’s a mixture of great models, large scale sets and some early CGI used to create the look of Mega City One and it genuinely looks the part. I love the fascistic look of the Judges uniform and their headquarters, The Hall Of Justice. The fascist undertones were always there in the comics, in later Dredd stories the Judge himself has started to question these elements of his world. In this film the design of the Judges uniform and vehicles is very much based on German design with lots of sharp angles and imposing imagery. The iconic shoulder pads of the Judge’s uniform now show more than ever an imposing hawk looking down on the citizens coupled with huge gold bars implying their strength and wealth. Now the film doesn’t manage to fully cash in on the potential satire and commentary that this implies but there are hints of it in the ruthless nature of Dredd’s law. Even other Judges find him a bit on the harsh side of thing. Although sending Rob Schneider to prison for 5 years just for hiding inside a droid is totally fair. I support that judgement.
Oh Rob Schneider, how I dislike you. I can honestly say that, in my opinion, no film has ever benefited from the presence of Rob Schneider. All he does in this film is make noises and quips. I know he’s there to be the viewers eyes on this fantastical world but if he was my eyes I’d tear them out and feed them to a dog. This purpose for his character, who’s called Herman “Fergee” Ferguson by the way, is undermined by one simple fact. He is not new to the world we are seeing. At the start he is returning from prison for being a hacker, because in the 90s every lovable criminal was a hacker. So not only has he seen how bad this world is, he has lived through it his whole life, been part of the criminal element and met plenty of Judges along the way. So why I ask is he constantly surprised by what should be daily life to him? If he would just shut the hell up I think I could cope with him in this film. But he doesn’t. So I can’t. Near the end he gets shot by the awesome looking ABC Warrior robot. Every time I watch the film I pray it starts playing an alternate cut where he slowly bleeds to death. There’s at least 5 situations in this film where he could have, no, should have died. Each time he survives I die a little inside. I hate this character and I hate the guy playing him. Want a new reason to hate Schneider? He’s one of those idiots that believes vaccinations make kids autistic. Twat.
One thing the film could have done with is a much stronger satirical streak. I feel like at some point this could have been passed to Paul Verhoeven and he would have knocked another sci-fi classic out of the park. The elements needed to make a great satire on the judicial system and the nature of a ruling state are all there. It’s just not exploited to the potential it could have had. I’d imagine this is down to Danny Cannon having been a relatively inexperienced director at this time having only direct 2 previous features, none of which were near the scale of Judge Dredd. He chucks in a few nice touches though. As mentioned there’s a lot of love from the set design work of Bladerunner. The slums of Mega City One are a total mess full of random pieces of junk and small details that give the city a real degraded feel. I quite like the use of shutters on the windows acting like Venetian blinds. That’s an element that really goes back to the 1940s serial thrillers but chuck a few moving beams of light through them and suddenly you give the audience the feel that there’s life going on beyond those walls without resorting to green screens and lots of CGI. It’s a technique used in Bladerunner multiple times and it’s amazing how such a simple trick is lost in these days where directors feel the need to show everything.
So the story is spotty, Rob Schneider is a pain but the film looks great. So how about the big gripe people have. Dredd removing his helmet. Everyone hates this it seems. Now I get the fact he never removes his helmet in the comic shows the faceless nature of the law in this future. But this is film isn’t the comic and the story they chose to tell would have just caused every audience member to question why Dredd was still wearing his mask after being arrested. In a film you need a arc for the main hero. Here Dredd’s arc is that he’s grown hard over the years, he gets betrayed by Rico and a senior Judge, he learns that it’s possible for the law to make mistakes and then… well then the film kinda just has him kick a load of arse for the last 20 minutes until we get to that awesome “LAAAAAAAWWWWWWW!” scene. Basically what I’m saying is, within the context of this story Dredd couldn’t have kept his face covered without some convoluted series of events leading to him having his face covered some other way. Plus the studio is paying Sylvester Stallone a ton of money to be in their film so they want his face show. If Karl Urban was as big a star now as Stallone was then he’d be taking his helmet off in the new film. Now this Dredd isn’t quite the Dredd of the comics and it’s that disassociation that needs to be made to allow yourself to accept that you can see his face.
Judge Dredd is by no means a great film but I think it deserves to be at least regarded as a well made film. It mostly represents a missed opportunity by the studio, director Danny Cannon and writers William Wisher and Steven E DeSouza to capitalise on the properties full potential. It’s disappointing and was in severe need to a sharper satirical streak and more time spent in the Cursed Earth. It needed Rob Schneider’s involvement to end the moment Dredd sentences him to prison. It needed better fleshed out characters especially from any villain not called Rico. It’s flawed all over the place but the film itself is an enjoyable romp that looks great and manages to keep ramping up the action as it moves along. It succeeds at being entertaining and that’s pretty much what this film was always going to be without a stronger director at the helm. So yeah, I enjoy the film. Don’t judge me!