With last weeks release of the fantastic Dredd, I thought it might be a good time to look back at the 1995 adaptation of the 2000 AD character, Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone in the titular role. But a Retrospective isn't appropriate, due to their being no connection between the two films other than the source material, and a Fixer Favorite was also out of the question. So we're introducing a new feature (heh) here at Feature Fix. Titled "What Went Wrong," it will be for looking back at films that had potential, yet simply failed to deliver. Saying that Judge Dredd failed to deliver is actually quite an understatement.
The films opening titles play over a gallery of comic book covers, immediately reminding the audience of the source material that it is going to fail to live up to in the most spectacular fashion possible. Judge Dredd the film is everything Judge Dredd the comic is not. It's dumb, poorly thought out, and ugly. Also it has Rob Schneider in it. Speaking of Schneider, the pairing of him and Stallone also brings to mind memories of the film Demolition Man, where the two both starred as well. Demolition Man is actually a better Judge Dredd film than Judge Dredd, which makes this film look even worse by comparison.
The inclusion of Schneider's character, Fergee, is itself a great example of where the film went wrong. There are too many characters from the comics packed into a film that is only an hour and a half long. In addition to Dredd himself, and Fergee, there is also Rico (Armand Assante), the entire Angel Gang, and several other Judge's who feature prominently in the story. On top of this, with the exception of Fergee and the Angel Gang, none of them resemble the counterparts they are "based" on at all. The film has taken the minutia of the comics and been almost slavish to it, while missing the point completely.
Stallone, as Dredd even though you wouldn't be able to tell by his lack of a helmet, faces off against a member of the Angel Gang, one of the many characters jammed into the film with no real development or dimension.
Speaking of Armand Assante as Rico, this is another big mistake with the film. Rico and Dredd are, in both the comics and the film, supposed to be identical to one another, being twin brothers of a sort. Armand Assante looks nothing like Sylvester Stallone. Not even enough to be his brother in general, let alone a clone sharing the exact same DNA like he's said to be. Yet he does do one hell of a terrible Stallone impersonation trying to sell that they're related. This causes what should have been an interesting arc about what could happen if Dredd were to lose control himself into an unintentional comedy of Stallone and Assante spending a large amount of time screaming "law" at one another. And to add another level to the stupidity, both of them are said to be clones of Chief Judge Fargo, played by Max Von Sydow, who looks nothing like either man.
Another issue with the character of Rico is his motivation. In the comics, the story of Rico is one of tragedy, with a good man (at least by the standards of Judges, but we'll cover the satire, and lack thereof in this film, in a bit) who lost his mind after a particularly dangerous mission, and the brother that ended up having to, reluctantly, take him down. In this film his motivations more closely resemble that of Judge Death from the comics, with his justification for the murders he commits being that everyone who is alive will eventually break the law, and that pre-emptive justice is the solution. Now, I love Judge Death, but Rico here is no Judge Death. He fails at both being a tragic figure that shows a more human side to Dredd himself, and as a monster who displays what happens when the fascism that is called justice in this universe reaches it's logical conclusion.
Mega City 1 is another issue with the film. The city that Dredd calls home must not only give a strong sense of place, but also be a character unto itself. The design is futuristic and gritty, yet somehow manages to look nothing like Mega City 1 as it is in the comics. It also manages to not look at all unique, either, coming off as a poor man's Blade Runner for the most part. In addition to this, the city, which is supposed to house 65 million people in buildings known as blocks, which are the size of cities themselves, looks small.They also continue the trend of getting the details while missing the point when it comes to things from the comics. Mega City 1 is on the East Coast, with the area Dredd mainly operates in being where New York City once stood. The film goes out of it's way to establish this by having grand shots of the Statue Of Liberty, yet forgets that in the world of Dredd, the Statue Of Judgement, which resembles a Judge, stands next to it, towering over it in fact, showing that law is more important than liberty to this society.
Armand Assante (left) and Sylvester Stallone (right) in...Wait, that's not right. Sorry, they just look so similar that I get confused sometimes.
Speaking of design, let's talk about that of the Judge's themselves. What Dredd and his fellows are wearing is supposed to be body armor, yet here it's a thin spandex suit with a bunch of pointless ornamentation on it. Other than the helmet, nothing they wear looks like it would be useful in a fire fight at all. Hell, even the helmet just looks like it's the plastic toy that a child would buy after seeing the movie, not like an actual piece of police or military hardware. It's no wonder they had Stallone almost immediately discard such a goofy, cheap looking piece of costuming.
One of the most important things about Judge Dredd is the fascism that the society shown in it has fully embraced. The new film completely nails this aspect of it, bringing dark humor and social commentary to it, constantly running underneath the surface. It, and the comics, are both layerd, funny, and smart in there portrayals of the system of Judges as being a wrong minded idea from the get go, but also raising the questions of what solution other than it would work in a world on the brink of collapse. None of that is present here. In it's stead is Sylvester Stallone rattling off stilted dialogue about how he is the law, and how Rico betrayed the law, and law this law that, law law law, and then Max Von Sydow talking about how the badges the Judge's wear stands for freedom. None of it is tongue in cheek, there are no moments where the viewer realizes that Dredd is a jackbooted thug who just happens to have the power of the government behind him, and the only "humor" present comes from Rob Schneider. It's a massive failure on every single level when it comes to capturing the satire that makes the comics unique.
On a technical level Judge Dredd also fails to deliver. An example of this is the action scenes. While the movie is rated R, nothing about it feels like it should have gotten anything over a PG-13. Sure, there's some blood here and there, but nothing that warrants the R rating it recieved. It's also put forward in such a way that, despite the colorful opponents and futuristic weapons, each action scene just seems boring. One of the great things about the new film is that it showed the different types of ammunition that Dredd's lawgiver pistol houses, and did so over the course of the entire movie, rolling out new ammo types every few set pieces as to not get boring. Here he scrolls through every type of ammo within the first 15 minutes of the film, in the very first action scene. Also, his gun talks, repeating every command to switch ammo type that it's given. This makes it relentless hokey in addition to played out before the film even really begins.
While the lack of a helmet is another example of missing the point of the character, at least he looks slightly less like he's a little kid playing dress up without it. But only slightly.
The few good elements of the film, as rare as they are, come off as poorer versions of better movies. The co-ed showers at the Hall of Justice evoke Paul Verhoven's Robocop and Starship Troopers. Yet another example of the film reminding you of better, more interesting films. The film as a whole is nothing but a string of ideas taken from other places, be it the comics or other films, and mashed together to form a whole that is completely disjointed and less than the sum of it's parts.
The real travesty is how easy it would be to make a film with most of these elements that is still watchable. Rico should have been a villain set up over the course of several films, introduced in the first as an ally and falling to madness only at the end, leading to him being sent to a prison colony. The Angel Gang could have been the main villains, taking full advantage of the Cursed Earth and giving a reason for Rico's madness in radiation poisoning. The second film could have either had a completely different story, possibly focusing on the block war aspect that was introduced here, or even the Dark Judges, if they really wanted to have a character with motivations similar to Rico's in this film. Then the third would be the return of Rico as a full blown villain. Things like the character Fergee could be removed all together, with one of Dredd's fellow Judges serving as the human face of the whole thing, much like Dredd did with Judge Anderson.
It's a damn shame that this movie has probably tainted the name of Judge Dredd forever. I'm sure its memory is partly to blame for the poor performance of Dredd at the box office, despite it being a fantastic film. it is a curse that seemingly will never be lifted, destined to haunt the franchise for the rest of eternity, and that's a damn shame. So, what went wrong with Judge Dredd? In short: Everything.