Looking back at Judge Dredd

The classic 2000AD character Judge Dredd was first adapted for the big screen in 1995, and the results were flawed, to say the least. Phil takes a look back…

First, let me put my cards on the table. For the best part of thirty years, I have been a huge fan of the character Judge Dredd, and the British comic 2000AD in which he appears.

I state this at the outset just so that you can appreciate the effort it has taken for me not to revert to tedious and predictable whinging about Stallone removing the helmet, Rob Schneider being cast as Fergee, and Dredd exchanging a kiss with Judge Hershey at the film’s conclusion.

Not for me the polemic of the immovable fan-boy, but rather the dispassionate objectivity of a reasonable film critic, someone who can see that compromises have to be made, and that comic book movie franchises are adapted for a wider audience than just the readers of the strips themselves.

Indeed, only a grexnix could fail to understand how…Gargh. I can’t do it, drokk it! Each and every one of those decisions was wrong I tell you! Wrong, wrong, wrong!

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He should have kept the helmet on! Rob Schneider should never have been cast as Fergee! And Judges should never, ever kiss!

There. I feel so much better for getting that out of my system.

Since its release in 1995, the intervening sixteen years have not been kind to Judge Dredd, although the cause of its failings run much deeper than any issues to do with headgear, casting, or how Judges should or should not behave.

In that time, the comic book sub-genre has risen to lofty new heights, with stunning adaptations such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, against which Judge Dredd now looks very old hat indeed. But even if you ignore such retrospective comparisons, the main reason the film looks decidedly average now is because it was decidedly average then.

It took a concept that, at its best, was intelligent and thought-provoking, was liberally laced with violence and oodles of humour, and which frequently served up a big dollop of social satire, and then went and made a movie that included none of these things.

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Its failure, both commercially and critically, is something that still seems to rankle with its star, Sylvester Stallone, who has always looked back at the movie as a wasted opportunity. Speaking at a press conference to promote Rambo in 2008, Stallone said “The biggest mistake I ever made was with the sloppy handling of Judge Dredd”. It’s an interesting statement, revealing more than is apparent at first glance about what went wrong with the film.

For starters, it implies that Stallone had a degree of autonomy and control that was never really exercised until it was too late; that somehow, he could have ensured Judge Dredd became the film that fans had desperately wanted it to be, rather than the half-arsed compromise it became. It’s also revealing because it’s the sort of comment you’d expect to see from a film’s producer or director, rather than its leading man, and therein lay one of this troubled production’s numerous problems.

Because regardless of who was precisely to blame for the resultant film and to what extent, Judge Dredd is the perfect example of what can happen when an inexperienced but promising director clashes with a highly influential actor over a concept that everybody loves, but nobody seems able to agree on how best to bring to life on the big screen.

In the weeks and months leading up to the start of production on the film, things all looked so promising. Back in the days before widespread use of the Internet, 2000AD devotees relied on The Mighty Tharg, the comic’s Betelgeusian editor, to feed us regular scraps of information concerning the impending shoot.

Now, of course, fans of a particular character will always have their own ideas about those actors they feel are best suited to the role. My naive little mind couldn’t see beyond Clint Eastwood at the time, so when it was announced that Stallone had been cast I was a tad disappointed.

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However, on reflection, I thought things could have been a lot worse had Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to make the film his next role. I love Arnie when he’s at his best (The Terminator, Conan The Barbarian, Jingle All the Way) but as Judge Dredd? Shudder.

Also, there was some consolation in the fact that Stallone was finally getting back to making half way decent action movies such as Cliffhanger and Demolition Man (I’ll let The Specialist slide), following a disastrous spell in the early 90s when he’d convinced himself he was a comedian (but failed to convince the rest of us), with the light-hearted gangster romp Oscar and the frankly atrocious Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Meanwhile, the film’s director, Danny Cannon, was being sold as the next big thing to emerge from a burgeoning crop of exciting and talented young British directors and, in what seemed like a crucial attribute at the time, was a long time fan and reader of 2000AD

In fact, he’d designed his own poster for a Dredd film many years earlier, which had then been featured in the pages of the galaxy’s greatest comic. If he knew Dredd (fans reasoned), then surely he would deliver the subversive humour, explosive action and savage social satire that made the best Dredd stories so compelling.

What’s more, there were mutterings that the creators of the Judge Dredd strip, (writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra) were to be consulted throughout script development by screenwriters William Wisher and Steven de Souza, further ensuring that the essence of Dredd and his world would be retained in a film that was to be shot in the UK with a largely British crew (additional proof that those crazy Americans weren’t going to be allowed to sabotage a British comics institution). As Tom Baker might have said had he been there at the time “Britain, Britain, Britain!”

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So it all looked set to be a thoroughly zarjaz blockbuster (or at the very least a fairly scrotnig one) that would do full justice to Mega-City One’s most feared lawman, and the chaotic world to which he daily attempted to bring the word of ‘The Law’. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, not everything – at least, that’s the impression you’re left with if you take the opening moments of on screen action as any sort of indication. For all the problems that were later revealed to have existed off screen, the opening fifteen minutes of the film serve as a perfectly realised introduction to Dredd, the Judges, and the chaos of the nightmare city where they strive to maintain order.

Introducing a phenomena that is indicative of the sheer boredom that mass unemployment brings in Mega-City One (with about ninety-eight per cent of the 400 million population out of work), Judge Dredd opens with a block war taking place in the apartment building that has been assigned to recently released convict, Fergee (Rob Schneider), who arrives at his new abode just as trouble is kicking off.

 

Putting his technical wizardry to good use, he sabotages a municipal cleaning droid so that he can hide in it and avoid the carnage. Then, as the two blocks open fire on each other, enter Stallone’s Dredd, who steps imperiously into the fray as bullets and explosions ricochet around him and his Judge colleagues dive for cover.

Delivering the line “I am the law!” while working the Joe Dredd chin in a most pleasing fashion, he then grimly sets about bringing the trouble makers to justice with a mixture of severe sentencing and instant executions, before condemning a distraught and disbelieving Fergee to five more years in prison for interfering with city property (the cleaning droid).

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It’s exactly the sort of thing that would appear as a one-off story in the 2000AD strip, told over six to eight pages and concluding with the perfect punch line, as Dredd sentences a man fresh out of jail to another stint inside, simply for saving his own life. In addition, Dredd is the hard-hearted, implacable bastard we all know and love, Mega-City One has been introduced (and quite frankly looks incredible), and we’ve been given a crash course in how the Judge system is used to implement justice. Plus, we seem to have got rid of Rob Schneider early as well. All in all, it’s a very pleasing opening.

And then things start to go down hill at a quite alarming rate.

One of the main bones of contention for Stallone appears to have been the wasted potential of the comic’s vision of a world and society gone mad, with very little of this vision actually finding its way onto the big screen. Think of films like Blade Runner, Alien and Brazil, and you’ll recall worlds as distinctive and memorable as the people within them. Unfortunately, in Judge Dredd, Mega City One was rarely seen other than in that opening sequence, and then once more during a slightly ropey special FX sequence towards the end, featuring a chase on hover bikes across the city.

Apart from that, it’s all generic interiors, be they courtrooms, locker rooms or prison cells, each as mundane, bland and unmemorable as the last. The same approach was taken to the radioactive wastelands known as the Cursed Earth, where all we really got to see was a few seconds of bog standard desert, a prison shuttle interior and the inside of a cave.

To miss the importance of the environment is to miss one of the key reasons why the Dredd strip and 2000AD have been so popular and well loved, which is that Judge Dredd has never really been about the man himself, but rather the time and the place in which he exists. Had John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra had the level of involvement first mooted, it’s inconceivable that such a crucial aspect of what makes the character and strip work would have been overlooked.

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However, in a recent Empire interview, Wagner talked of how ambivalent the film’s makers seemed to receiving any meaningful input from him, their lack of serious interest epitomised by what he refers to as their desire for “involvement with no remuneration”. If the makers of Judge Dredd were not prepared to pay Wagner and Ezquerra as design consultants on their movie, how could anyone expect Dredd‘s creators to have had any significant involvement?

Another problem that was never resolved, and one alluded to by Stallone, was the movie’s tone. Gritty vision of a nightmare dystopia, or bright and colourful comic book romp? At times, it appears to be attempting both, and succeeding at neither. It’s possible that Stallone had more to do with this than he’s willing to let on, due to his eagerness for the film to obtain a PG-13 rating, and avoid the R rating that would alienate what he saw as a huge part of the film’s core audience (it got an R anyway).

If Stallone really was toning things down at the last minute for the sake of a more teen-friendly rating, it’s no wonder that Cannon would have felt his vision for the film was being compromised. Either way, Stallone now talks about how ‘balls to the wall’ the film should have been, and he’s right, it should have. To do the comic strip justice, it should have been violent, fast paced, cynical and satirical, featuring a lead character who is single minded in his determination to enforce the will of the law and bring order to the streets. But then, how do you make a film with a protagonist who seems like nothing more than an indoctrinated automaton, enforcing the will of a brutal and oppressive regime, and still make people care about him?

Well, you make RoboCop (which also features a lead character who spends the majority of the movie with his face concealed I’ll have you note). In many ways, Paul Verhoeven’s film, made eight years earlier, was the perfect Judge Dredd movie in all but name, featuring as it does a darkly humorous vision of life in the big city where crime is running amok, and radical new solutions are required in order to address the problem.

Admittedly, although the characters of RoboCop and Dredd may have much in common in their approach to dealing with crime, they are very different in terms of their motivation. However, the worlds in which they operate are remarkably similar. 

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Had Judge Dredd followed the RoboCop template, it could have delivered a story that was more in keeping with the vision of the comic strip itself, while still providing something that was dramatic and entertaining for filmgoers who were unfamiliar with the world of Dredd. But given how successfully Verhoeven depicted such a world, it’s perhaps understandable that, mindful of producing something that appeared RoboCop-lite, the makers of Judge Dredd avoided ploughing that particular furrow again, and instead attempted something different.  

Unfortunately, their view of something different was an attempt to humanise Judge Dredd and, in doing so, demystify him. As long term fans will know, over the years the character has developed into a more complex individual than the quasi-fascist he started out as. He’s a man who has wrestled with his fair share of moral dilemmas, disagreeing with his superiors, challenging his country’s laws, and never really exhibiting any sense of what you could call enjoyment when dishing out much of the death and destruction that comes with the job.

But for all that, his appeal lies in the fact that he is essentially unknowable, and is the ultimate depiction of the last man standing. However, De Souza and Wisher went with the simplest of plots and most hackneyed of character development in a story where Dredd is framed for a crime he did not commit and, in the process of clearing his name, has to learn that perhaps he’s been treating folk a tad harshly up till now (excuse me while I have a stiff brandy and a quick lie down after typing that).

Such an approach was inevitably bound to pick loose the threads that coloured the rich tapestry of Dredd’s life and his world. In the process of unravelling, the film veers from a prison escape drama to a buddy comedy, after Dredd is forced to team up with Fergee to prevent his evil brother Rico (Armand Assante) from corrupting the Judge system with his army of clones, and unleashing chaos on the streets of the Big Meg.

None of which is to say that the plot couldn’t have been made to work. It’s just that as it progresses, the tone becomes progressively muddled, the script clichéd and banal, but most importantly, throughout all of this, the character of Dredd is gradually diluted until he no longer exists.

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Take the scene where Fergee mocks Dredd’s mantra “I am the Law!” This was an ad lib that was apparently so funny that it was then included in the film. The problem is, it’s Rob Schneider doing an impression of Sylvester Stallone and not Dredd, at a point in the movie when the character of Dredd is still just about hanging on for dear life. It’s symptomatic of the feeling that the essence of who Dredd is supposed to be is being diminished with every passing minute and, unfortunately, after this little bon mot, he’s gone for good, replaced by just another in a long line of Sly Stallone action heroes.

“But these are all concerns of the Judge Dredd fan, surely!” I hear non-Dredd fans groan. “The average moviegoer who has never read any Dredd probably couldn’t care less about the helmet, the romance and Rob Schneider”. And you’d be right. However, such filmgoers were still left with an action movie that lacked both pace and spectacle, and was at times depressingly formulaic.

Plus, when adapting a book or comic, those filmmakers who recognise and include all of the things that work about the source material often go on to create movies that are deeper, richer and more believable, and are therefore easier for an audience to emotionally invest in and enjoy.

Since 1995, Stallone has never been short of a word or two on the experience of working with Danny Cannon, for whom Judge Dredd provided a golden opportunity to make a name for himself, it being only his second major studio feature. When answering fans questions on the website Ain’t it Cool News five years ago, Stallone was particularly critical of the lack of consultation from the director as to just what sort of film they were planning to make.

“I think, from what I recall, the whole project was troubled from the beginning. The philosophy of the film was not set in stone – by that I mean, ‘Is this going to be a serious drama or with comic overtones’, like other science fiction films that were successful? So a lotta pieces just didn’t fit smoothly. It was sort of like a feathered fish. Some of the design work on it was fantastic, and the sets were incredibly real, even standing two feet away, but there was just no communication.”

As for Cannon, he has remained comparatively tight lipped about his time working with Stallone, although their relationship deteriorated to such an extent that he subsequently made it known he would never work with another big name Hollywood actor again. He also made no secret of his opinion that the film suffered due to the changes in the script wrought by his leading man.

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But do you know what? Despite all this I still have a soft spot for it.  Admittedly I like the idea of it more than the reality, but it’s the idea of those moments that first gave me goosebumps sixteen years ago that still manages to persuade me to pull the DVD down from the shelf and give it a watch every now and again.

Moments like Chief Judge Fargo (Max Von Sydow) taking the long walk into the Cursed Earth after resigning from his post. Hammerstein of the ABC Warriors appearing as Rico’s lethal bodyguard. Mean Machine Angel being brought to glorious, colourful head-butting life, better than any other character in the entire film.

And of course, it has that wonderful opening quarter of an hour, featuring an awe-inspiring Mega-City One and a decent first impression from Stallone. All of these things tell me Judge Dredd could have been great. It had the potential to deliver something memorable and unique, and provide Stallone with a character to whom he could return as successfully as both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo had he wished. But it seems that egos, inexperience and a collective failure to realise the possibilities of the source material were destined to thwart such ambitions.

So now we look forward to Dredd, due out next year, with Karl Urban in the lead role. This time around I’m not going to expect too much, in the hope that I’ll be pleasantly surprised, and finally see a big screen adaptation of Old Stoney Face’s adventures that will go some way to living up to the peerless standards of the very best Judge Dredd stories.

Perhaps Mega-City One will be featured more heavily, and that tricky balancing act of maintaining the sense of humour with the utter nihilism of Dredd’s world will be achieved. And as for Dredd himself, maybe director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland will deliver a Dredd that is recognisable to those of us who have loved the character and comic strip over the last twenty-four years.

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Urban was a surprising but interesting choice for the lead, but as with Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Cruise’s Lestat, and Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker, he may well end up delivering a performance that defines the character for a generation. So, unlike other fans, I’ll not judge that particular piece of casting until I’ve seen the film.

No siree, my lips are sealed, so you’ll hear zip from me on that score. Nothing at all.

Nowt.

Nada.

…but you know, they really should have cast Ron Perlman.

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