BY BILAL LATIF, ART BY JASON DAVIS
Judge Dredd is a fascist. From jack-booted foot to helmeted head, he is the embodiment of paternalist oppression, an enforcer of the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit, an unthinking, unblinking, unflinching automaton programmed to intimidate and eradicate.
And, as a rule, we never see his face.
Of course, all rules have exceptions, and as long-time readers of weekly British science-fiction comic 2000 AD will note, Dredd does occasionally remove his helmet, if only when one storyline or another has horribly disfigured him to facilitate the event. However, the purpose of writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra’s authoritarian creation is to skewer far-right lunacy, a satirical symbol of knee-jerk reactions to current trends extrapolated and exaggerated into a future setting. Dredd is supposed to be unsympathetic. The fact that the character is such a hard-nosed, narrow-minded bastard that he would likely arrest his real-world fans is part of the joke.
How then was Hollywood to approach such an intentionally combustible property? Well, the setting is movie-friendly, the Blade Runner-like towers of Mega City One metallic mesas in the post-apocalyptic desert of the Cursed Earth, the planet scorched by climate change and political upheaval as per the opening crawl (with narration by James Earl Jones, perhaps for the benefit of child viewers too young for admission, or the illiterate). There is an abundance of gorgeous visuals, including an ABC War Robot inspired by the comics, a gloriously ugly Mean Machine Angel, and even a Judges’ uniform designed by Gianni Versace(!)
The visual effects, favouring practical miniatures over CGI models, have a clunky charm. The action scenes are consistently entertaining, incorporating guns, fists and flying motorcycles. Even the premise is crowd-pleasing in its poetic justice, with the mightiest of the Judges, Joseph Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) himself rendered a fugitive after he is framed for murder, but with the help of allies Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) and Herman Ferguson (Rob Schneider), he attempts to avert the dastardly plans of Judge Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow) who is aided by Dredd’s nemesis Rico (Armand Assante).
On paper, the film could not fail. Hell, on film, it seems a success from its opening scenes, which include a block war (an insane turf war fought by citizens from rival city blocks, per a storyline from the comics), black comedy (a server droid exclaims ,‘Eat recycled food – it’s good for the environment and okay for you’) and vicious Judge action (a brilliantly-introduced Dredd summarily executes criminals with his voice-activated, grenade-spewing, armour-piercing-round-throwing Lawgiver handgun).
We laugh as Dredd berates Ferguson for breaking the law to save his own life when there existed the perfectly legal option of jumping out of a window; we are absorbed as Griffin and Chief Justice Fargo (Max Von Sydow) debate the merits of order over justice; we smile as Dredd yells, ‘I am the law!’
And yet, as soon as Dredd removes his helmet, many of these qualities vanish with it.
Sure, there are still moments of pure Dredd – ‘Happy motoring,’ he says after obliterating an obnoxious yuppie’s futuristic Ferrari – but these are few and far between because of the severity of the filmmakers’ sin: they tried to make Judge Dredd likeable. Look at him beam proudly at his comedy sidekick’s handiwork! Listen to his adorable catchphrase, ‘I knew you’d say that’! He even gets the girl – what a guy!
Strangely, these incongruences do not stem from a misunderstanding of the character by the filmmakers – British director Danny Cannon is a lifelong Dredd fan, and as surprisingly candid interviews in official materials reveal, producer Charles Lippincott understood full well the truth of the character, but felt that American audiences would not respond positively to the shades of dark, postmodern humour required to faithfully portray him. Or, to put it more bluntly, Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent satire RoboCop had beaten them to the punch, due in no small part to the fact that screenwriter (and Dredd fan) Ed Neumeier had previously worked on a draft of Judge Dredd.
It is unfortunate that the filmmakers, in understandably attempting to distance themselves from RoboCop, squandered the potential of Judge Dredd, partly through the misguided decision to tamper with screenwriter William Wisher’s draft of the film (which would have involved Dredd in an ideological tug-of-war between Fargo and Griffin) by enlisting Die Hard scribe Steven E. de Souza to grease the script’s wheels. The end result feels like a bland tick-box exercise designed to superficially include elements and characters from the comics without really exploring them, a generic 90s action movie with science fiction styling. Certain scenes almost portray Dredd as the protagonist of a fish-out-of-water comedy, bearing more resemblance to Stallone’s other science fiction action film, Demolition Man, than the pages of the source material.
Nonetheless, there is genuine enjoyment to be had – even if some of that enjoyment derives from the absurdity of Armand Assante’s performance – and Cannon and his team were clearly passionate about the material. For instance, Fargo’s dignified decision to take the death sentence that is the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth, juxtaposed with Dredd’s fall from grace and incarceration, is poetic in the flow of its dialogue and editing, complete with striking imagery like the archway formed by dozens of saluting Judges on either side of the frame. Similarly, the architecture, vehicles, robots and weapons featured throughout the film are all lovingly detailed, from their grungy, weathered look to their pleasing sound effects.
Stallone is a surprisingly good Dredd, deadpan wit snarling from his scowling jaw. It’s just a shame that the movie requires him to transition into his all-screaming, all-killing Rambo-Mode without allowing him to have any real fun with his portrayal. Von Sydow, Prochnow and Lane perform decently under the circumstances, with Lane in particular admirably imbuing her character with a heart and soul, despite the at times threadbare screenplay working against her. Even the infamous Rob Schneider is at least tolerable, his brief Stallone impersonation eliciting genuine laughter.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional inspired touch, the film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. Most of the time, proceedings feels so generic it needn’t be Judge Dredd running from the law he served – it may as well be John McClane, Martin Riggs, or Rambo. The material cries out to be treated with more class and sophistication but must settle for less, like a gourmet hamburger hamstrung by the house-style of McDonald’s. There is a time and place for cinematic junk food, but it is a shame that the filmmakers decided to approach the film from such an obvious angle as to render the whole thing banal. A kinder, gentler Judge Dredd isn’t Judge Dredd at all.
All these years after the original release, it seems as if the court of public opinion delivered the correct verdict. The movie is guilty of the crime of mediocrity. The sentence? Death by reboot.