More noise than signal

Dredd and Judge Dredd

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Borag Thungg, Earthlets. Thrill-Power aplenty awaits in this episode of the Fuds On Film podcast as we look at the two film outings for Mega City One’s top lawman, 1995’s Judge Dredd and 2012’s Dredd.

It’s fair to say that none of us on this podcast were ever big comic book fans, which may perhaps explain our bafflement over the sheer volume of barely distinguishable Marvel films being thrown our way. For Scott at least, while he’s never bought a Marvel or DC comic in his life, the one sort-of-adult / manboy comic book he flirted with for a few years was British anthology 2000AD, featuring a wide range of strips, skewed sort of science-fiction-wise from a fantastic selection of writers and artists, many of whom went on to the big two American companies.

The lynchpin of 2000AD is, of course, lawman of the future Judge Dredd, patrolling the congested Mega City One on the Eastern seaboard of the former United States of America, now largely a irradiated wasteland with the exception of the few megacities that could somewhat protect themselves from the nuclear strikes. The Judges are now the only authority figures, a council of Senior Judges running the city while on the streets Judges act as police, judge, jury, and, in a great many cases, executioner. With society continually on the verge of riot and revolt, it’s thought only a harsh rule of law will maintain order. I love the smell of fascism in the morning.

Judge Dredd has the in-universe reputation of being the baddest, gruffest, least flexible member of an order that’s generally renowned for being bad, gruff and inflexible, which makes him an interesting choice for a protagonist – and perhaps one difficult to write sympathetically. Lets see what Danny Cannon and Pete Travis made of the material.

Judge Dredd

While youngsters amongst us may not remember a time when comic book adaptations did not rule the box office, but grizzled veterans will know that this is not the first round of their popularity – albeit with today being at an entirely different scale. But Superman and Batman were with us in cinemas between the late seventies, probably peaking with Burton’s Batman in 1989. Things started to slide after that, with 1992’s Batman Returns being a bit of a disappointment and the bloom being well and truly off the rose by the time Joel Schumaker perpetrated Batman Forever in 1995. Marvel seemed not to have their act together movie-wise at this point, so also coming your way in 1995 was this Sylvester Stallone vehicle, directed by Danny Cannon, now most famous for his producing credits on the likes of Gotham and CSI.

It mines some of the early Dredd storylines for content, pulling from a number of early-ish strips dealing with Dredd’s origins and backstory. We join Dredd suppressing a “Block War” riot, where entire buildings go to war with their neighbours, largely out of the sheer boredom caused by the near universal unemployment and cramped conditions of Megacity One. As part of shutting this down, he sentences the only just released hacker Fergie (Rob Schneider, sadly) to a lengthy stretch in prison for hacking into and hiding inside a robo-food dispenser during the chaos. Seems harsh to fellow Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), but as far as Dredd’s concerned, the law is the law.

This comes back to bite him on the ass when he’s accused of murdering an investigative journalist. The video evidence isn’t conclusive, but the DNA tagging on the bullets fired by the lawgiver seem to be incontrovertible. Dredd is found guilty, and his life is only saved by Chief Judge Fargo (Max von Sydow) stepping down and taking the Long Walk into the wasteland to bring law to the lawless mutants who live out there. Conveniently, this makes way for Judge Griffin (Jürgen Prochnow) to seize power.

The explanation for this DNA confusion springs from the program Fargo and Griffin had been concealing. Turns out that Dredd was cloned largely from Fargo’s DNA, with a little tinkering, as part of a program to build a better Judge, which seems to have worked in his case but the rest of the results were not so positive. A particular disappointment was Rico (Armand Assante, sadly), who seemed to be a great judge before going full-on psychopath and killing a bunch of civilians. He escaped prison thanks to Judge Griffin, was equipped to frame Dredd, but now he’s out he’s keen to run his own game rather than be a pawn in Griffin’s.

While Dredd and Fegie are being shipped off to prison, their transport is attacked by the notorious Angel gang, including the vicious cyborg Mean Machine. They’re captured, but saved by Judge Fargo who fills in Dredd on his background. While upset, he resolves to return to Mega City One to bring Rico to justice. Sadly, Fergie accompanies him.

Meanwhile, Rico and Griffin have started a campaign of assassinating street judges, with the aim of creating enough of a panic to allow Griffin to restart a vastly accelerated cloning process, providing him with an army of compliant underlings. Dredd and Hershey, once he convinces her of his innocence, make haste to stop this.

Even skipping over a number of details, you’ve probably picked up that there’s quite a lot going on here, and it’s difficult not to feel that Danny Cannon and his team have bitten off a great deal more than they can chew. There’s major elements smashed together from about five story arcs, all dumped out to a generally uninitiated audience whose confusion I can feel echoing down the ages. In particular, understandably, it’s framed around Dredd himself, but he’s rarely the most interesting thing about any given story arc. It’s the city he’s policing that’s the star of the show, and perhaps if the film had focused more on that than tedious DNA sidetracks and the like it may be for the better. In a way, and particularly as an occasional fan with passing familiarity with the source material, it’s heartening to see them attempt to bring so much to the screen. There’s also been a greater attempt at fidelity than I’d perhaps have expected, but again this proves a double edged sword.

I don’t think you can fault the production design, however. Chris Cunningham, he of freaky Aphex Twin video fame, brought life to various aspects of the film, including aforementioned Mean Machine, but most notably Rico’s hulking robot bodyguard, a close relative of fellow 2000AD strip ABC Warriors Hammerstein. Perhaps the only thing I love more than the way this behemoth looks is that it’s found in a junk store run by Ian Dury, of Ian Dury and the Blockheads / Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick fame.

Some other aspects of the design, well, I see what they’re going for. The weaponry and vehicles are quite faithful to the comic strip, as are the costumes. Now, we need to talk about the costumes. Apparently designed by Gianni Versace, they’re perhaps the single best distillation of what can go wrong in an adaptation if you’re too reverential and refuse to change aspects of the piece that obviously do not work in a different medium. If you’ve not seen the film, it’s perhaps worth looking up a still on that there internet for reference, because it’s difficult to overstate exactly how silly these look. Big plastic-y looking eagles precariously perched on a shoulder, ludicrous padding, just making people look weirdly proportioned – it’s a very well executed terrible idea.

You could probably live with the protagonist looking a bit daft if this was going full on black comedy, which I’d argue has always been the heart of the comic strip, with absurdist, Monty Pythonesque flourishes. The film, however, can’t commit fully to this, and keeps elastically snapping back to a default action movie setup, and winds up falling halfway between them and not achieving anything consistent.

This is reflected in the performances, which are all over the shop. Schneider gonna Schneider, of course, but at least he’s supposed to be annoying in his role. He’s also supposed to be funny, which has been a career-long problem for him, but of all the awful performances I’ve seen him in, this is one of the least awful. But still awful. Least said soonest mended I suppose. Closely following is Armand Assante’s scenery devouring display of hamtacularity, which sometimes works, when the movie’s skewing comedy, and sometimes seems ludicrous, particularly when he’s on screen with Jurgen Prochnow, who along with Max von Sydow appear to be under the impression that this is a serious film and are trying to bring some sorely misplaced gravitas to proceedings.

I could probably talk about this for an hour or more by itself, but that’s the main points. It’s a film that holds a very similar place in my heart to Lynch’s Dune – on a cognitive level I can describe the reasons why it’s a bad film – the convoluted narrative, the flakey performances, the lack of proper adaptation to the medium – but there something about seeing this vision of source material I’m so fond of, even when flawed, means that I can’t bring myself to dislike it.

I probably should, mind you.


The Dredd fields lay fallow for some time, along with most comic book movies post Schumaker-era Batman, but 2012 saw Pete Travis enlist Karl Urban to slip on the helmet, and unlike Stallone, he won’t take it off. The opening salvo has a degree of similarity, a bike pursuit followed by a hostage situation establishing Dredd as the no-nonsense, inflexible lawman that he is, without mentioning his genetic heritage once. Some lessons have been learned, it seems.

The story proper kicks off when an un-named Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) comes to Dredd to ask him to supervise a field trial for a young cadet Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). She’s marginally failing her courses, but unlike Dredd the Council of Judges are inclined to cut her a little slack on account of her being the most powerful psychic that they’ve yet seen – another fallout from the fallout of the nuclear war.

Thinking she’d be useful to have on their team, her fate has come down to this one trial outing. They head off, responding to a call from the delightfully named, less delightfully appointed Peach Tree towers. Three bodies were skinned alive and tossed from somewhere up in the 200 floor building, and after some investigation it appears to be a statement from the Ma-Ma Clan gang, brutal criminals who control the tower’s underground, and most of the overground for that matter. Lead by the toughest, most brutal of them all, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), they moved in and systematically exterminated all opposition, but are now a little worried that the law is on their tail.

Less so because of Dredd and Anderson’s bust of the lower level drug den, where Anderson does not cover herself in glory, which is a cost of doing business, but because in the melee they’ve captured a relatively high level lieutenant Kay (Wood Harris). Reasoning that if they haul him back off for interrogation they’ll extract the secret that Peach Trees is Ma-Ma’s base for producing hot new drug Slo-Mo, she instructs her goons to take over the block’s control centre and shut it off from the rest of the city under the guise of a systems test, then instruct everyone to either help kill these Judges, or stay out of the way while her goons attempt to.

And so begins the hunt, with the Judges unable to call for backup, as they avoid or kill, mostly kill, the footsoldiers of the Ma-Ma Clan. In a simple plot recap, there’s not a great deal more to tell you as it starts going rather heavy on the action setpieces until Dredd and Anderson realise the only way out of here will be to cut the head off the snake, ascending floor by floor and taking out Ma-Ma herself, and her bribed, corrupt Judge bodyguards, but that’s giving some very short schrift to the sequences that are not just impressive on a visual, physical level, but also manage to cram some small amount of character development in along with it, which is a much harder feat than you might expect.

This was one of my favourite films of 2012, and time has not yet done much to diminish it. It’s as good a slice of action entertainment as I’ve seen this side of the millennium. I don’t think there’s much of a basis to objectively criticise the handling of the action, which is commendably frenetic but easy to follow and rarely gratuitous. Perhaps the style of it would have some detractors, though.

The markedly less comic book driven style is noticeable from the outset, with the less outlandish vehicles and Judge uniforms that aren’t a million miles away from motorbike leathers. While the 1995 film never quite squared away the contrast between the grim circumstances and police system of Mega City One with the surprisingly vibrant and colourful location, the 2012 outing relies more on the effects of Slo-Mo to provide the comic influence.

The drug slows down the user’s perception of time a hundredfold, allowing for some crazy slow motion scenes from their perspective, often effectively intercut with the sudden-ness of the actuality of the situation, but also does a number on the visuals too, making things all shiny and sparkly and more comic strip like, often in very stark contrast to what’s going on in those scenes. I think it looks hugely distinctive and effective, and also one of the very few effects that worked better in 3D, from memory. I love it, although I can see that your mileage may vary. However, it’s not over-used, so even for the haters it shouldn’t overpower the rest of the action.

Pete Travis’ team, and particularly Karl Urban seem to have a better grasp on the tone that the source material most commonly has, with Dredd essentially acting as the straight man to the pratfalls of the city around him. He’s commendably gruff and proves his action credentials here in a way he most certainly could not in Doom. Given her relatively small amount of screen-time, Lena Headey makes a sizeable impact and a good foil for Dredd, although it’s perhaps Olivia Thirlby who makes the film.

Her trial by fire results in a believable change in the character over the course of the film, without making her a damsel in distress – it toys with it at one point, only to have her escape on her own and be the one that saves Dredd in perhaps my favourite scene of the film.

As we’ve discussed in podcast passim, particularly our Scanner Darkly / Radio Free Albemuth episode, sometimes slavish adherence to the source material simply doesn’t work, which was certainly the case with the 1995 film. While this 2012 outing deviates more in absolute terms, it seems to capture more of the strips character, and is a substantially better film to boot.

I most highly recommend this film.