This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
The future is not a nice place, according to John Wagner. His vision of the world reduces humans to living crammed into vast Mega-Cities, the only haven against the terrible radiation of the Cursed Earth outside the city walls. In these cities, chaos would reign if policed by normal methods. Hence, the creation of the Judges, sworn to uphold the law with extreme prejudice. The Judges are the police, jury and executioner rolled into one. All of this is lazily established in a voice over by Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), who plays no further part in the film, having a rebellion to crush elsewhere. It may have been nice to bring this history up throughout the film instead but at least everyone starts on a level footing this way.
To establish the vastness of the cityscape, we follow the recently released petty criminal Fergie (Rob Schneider), on parole after serving six months in Aspen Prison for minor hacking offences. The Judges welcome him back and assign him new quarters in the less-than-aptly named Heavenly Heights. Unfortunately it’s in the middle of a Block War, with his new apartment being one of the main bases of operation. Seeing as firing heavy automatic weapons at each other is prohibited, it’s only a matter of time before this attracts the attention of the Judges.
In Mega City One, the foremost and most feared of them is Judge Joseph Dredd (Sylvester Stallone). Renowned for following and enforcing the law to the minutest detail to the fullest extent prescribed, he’s called in as reinforcements for Judge Hershey and a random rookie already on the scene of the kerfuffle. Dredd is really all the reinforcements that are required to quell this riot, and after they fail to thrown down their weapons after his initial warning this gives him carte blanch to get to the kicking of the ass. During this warning we get the first appearance of Dredd’s catchphrase “I Am The Law!”, which is one of the few lines that ol’ Sly never seems to deliver the way I’d imagined it, rushing through it to the point of incomprehensibility. This is maybe the only flaw in a solid performance from him, with the rest of his delivery and attitude being more or less bang-on, I reckon.
The Block War disturbance dealt with using Dredd’s own brand of terminal justice, the only loose end is to arrest Fergie who had been hiding away in a passing service droid and send him on his way back to clink, despite Fergie’s and Hershey’s appeals for clemency. To Dredd there is no such thing as extenuating circumstances, so these appeals fall on deaf ears. His rigid, unbending enforcing of the law in minute detail is as close as the film gets to examining the fascist nature of Dredd’s world, which is also more or less in line with the comic strip. It’s essentially an action comic with a political subtext that normally isn’t thrust directly into your face like the more blatant parallels of X-Men, and the film version of Dredd perhaps tips the balance more in favour of action than analysis of the system Dredd eventually has to fight.
Fight he must, as he has the misfortune to encounter the plot device of many’s downfall, the Framing For A Crime He Did Not Commit. In this case it’s the murder of a journalist who was seen earlier sniffing around the Justice Department’s procedures and Board of Justice member Judge Griffin in particular. Hershey is called on to defend, and she’s successful in arguing that the video evidence is not substantial enough. Dredd’s goose is cooked when DNA evidence of the bullets found in the body provides seemingly irrefutable proof of his guilt. Chief Justice Fargo (Max Von Sydow), a father figure of sorts to Dredd manages to get Dredd’s sentence reduced to life imprisonment rather than execution by resigning, and having this be his last wish, of sorts. All retiring Judges have to face the Long Walk, a term given to being banished to the Cursed Earth, bringing law to the lawless. The intercut images of Dredd being marched off to a shuttlecraft in chains and Fargo making his dignified walk into an uncertain future lined by Judges showing their respect is perhaps a tad heavy handed, but undeniably effective.
On his transport to prison, Dredd is placed next to Fergie, who is quick to point out the irony of the situation. Dredd still thinks the law doesn’t make mistakes, despite Fergie’s valid point asking what’s he doing here, if that’s true? Schneider isn’t an actor I’d normally want to see, but he doesn’t come off too badly in his role here, even if it is just as a generic comic sidekick. You rarely want to see him killed at least, which is about as much as can be expected in these roles.
Behind this plot, as is no surprise to anyone, is the now Chief Judge Griffin. He’s helped a vicious criminal ex-Judge, Rico escape from prison to help him set up this scheme, and now instructs Rico to cause chaos on the streets of the city for reasons that become clear but not entirely logical later on. If there’s a weak link in the acting performances it’s these two. Griffin is never made to seem manipulating or clever enough to make his plans utterly convincing. Rico’s really the main villain here, and while the ‘psycho’ aspect of his persona is adequate the more intelligent scheming side is under-exposed, which is a great pity. While neither Assante nor Prochnow are awful in their roles they don’t seem to provide quite the strong villains that Judge Dredd deserves to rail against.
Both Rico and Dredd have run-ins with other characters from the 2000AD universe. The shuttlecraft Dredd and Fergie are in is shot down by the notorious Angel gang, including the mighty Mean Machine Angel – a cyborg nutcase with dial controlled mood settings ranging from ‘surly’ to ‘out of control’. For the uninitiated there a sort of badland hillbilly godfearing cannibal gang, and they’re well realised here with one exception. They capture Dredd and Fergie, but Dredd’s escape and destruction of Mean Machine and co occurs entirely too easily for one of the more popular groups of villains in the Dredd family, although Dredd has help in the form of Fargo, who stumbles into their oddly bright den. One unusual aspect of this movie is that every scene seems to occur in lovely well-lit areas when a dirty, darker environment would seem more appropriate. It seems wrong somehow, not the way I’d thought of Dredd’s bleak world.
Rico gains an effective ally in the form of a slightly redesigned ABC Warrior Hammerstein, creatively fiddled with by Chris Cunningham, the director of the excellent albeit disturbing Aphex Twin videos Windowlicker and Come To Daddy. The ABC Warriors strips kicked almost as much ass as Dredd does, so it’s a welcome addition. Rico finds him as a relic of a bygone war in a shop run by Ian Dury, of all people, and reactivates him as a mindless bodyguard. Perhaps it’s a little sad to see his free will vanish like this but it’s balanced out by the sheer joy of seeing him on screen. Needless to say, when called upon to do so this hulking monolith has no problems ripping people limb from limb.
Griffins plot is to reopen a project of his abandoned and sealed by the Council years ago to create a clone army. With Rico off killing a sizeable portion of the current Judge population, this looks to be the only hope of regaining control over the city, so the council O.K. the scheme. Unknown to Griffin, Rico substitutes the intended clones with his own DNA. With Dredd and Fergie managing to re-infiltrate the city, they join up with Hershey to take on Rico and stop his schemes. If anything the conclusion here comes far too quickly, with Dredd not really directly chasing Rico for long enough to lend a climatic feel to their showdown.
An unusual criticism of an action movie but it’s tried to fit too much plot in for it’s own good. While the talking / killing balance is as good as you could ask for, there’s too many scenes where the exposition has to be squeezed in and it can seem rather forced as a result. The actual strips this story is mostly based on could get a tad convoluted at times, and that unfortunately is more obvious when condensed to fit a screenplay.
The only major sticking point in watching this today is in the effects department. While nothing looks terrible, effects technology has moved on so much since this was made that the intended ‘wow’ factor of certain scenes, particularly of the hovercar fly-throughs of the city now look dated more than astonishing. Many of the props used have a distinct ‘plasticy’ look to them, particularly the Judges armor. The metallic eagle on Dredd’s shoulder armour ought to be a proud symbol of justice, but it looks a little too pathetic here.
I haven’t hit upon the main fan-boy criticism of the film yet, and that’s Dredd’s helmet. In the comics, this is never, ever removed. No one really knows what Dredd looks like, but it’s safe to say that more or less everyone knows what Stallone looks like. If you know what he looks like under the helmet, does it matter if it’s on or not? Well, yes, it hurts the mystery of the Dredd character. He’s not exactly enigmatic as such, but it’s almost unforgivable that the film totally disregards this important part of the comic.
But it gets more right than it does wrong. The plot is actually stronger and more robust than most sci-fi, and has the advantage of coming from an already well-realised universe. It’s commercial and critical failure suggests that it’s not a film that convinces non-fans to partake in it with the same joy Spiderman and X-Men did. For anyone who has ever picked up a copy of 2000AD and can get over the whole helmet thing there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had here. It does a good job of capturing the essence of the strips and the blend of humour and violence is spot-on. I’m not entirely sure why it bombed so badly at the box office, although I suspect it ending up with a 15 rating couldn’t have helped it much. Judge Dredd being one of the few comics I’m a legitimate fan of, I found this hugely enjoyable. Rumours of a new film abound, and I for one would love to see it.