Last week saw the UK release of the latest adaptation of 2000 AD’s most famous character, Judge Dredd. Critics, and it would seem, audiences have taken to this new incarnation with open arms and praise, as the film currently carries a 95% approval. But, of course, this is not the first time that the comic-book law enforcer has been on the big screen. Back in the days of 1995, Dredd was turned into a tent-pole Sylvester Stallone action movie. It was meant to be a hit. But it wasn’t. It flopped. Both commercially and critically. The people that hated it more so than critics were the comic-book fans, and they are the kind of people that you do not want to piss off. For one, Dredd removed his helmet. And he shared a kiss. And he had a ‘character arc’. Any 2000 AD fan will tell you that throughout Dredd’s 35 years of existence, he has never really changed or developed as a character. He has remained the cruel, one-liner spitting, violent and undeniably fascist right hand of Mega City’s Law and Order. But is the film as bad as the fans, and the critics of the 90’s, would lead you to believe? (Yes, this feature is very much inspired by Total Films’ recent reappraisal of said film, but I’d like to think this is significantly different). I am both a comic book fan and a Stallone fan, and do remember watching the Stallone version when I was the young and naive age of ten and having fun with it. But now as a more mature viewer, and having more knowledge and experience with the source material, I began to wonder what I would think of the Danny Cannon directed Judge Dredd movie now? That, and I really, really want to see  Dredd 3-D, so I need to find someway to satisfy my Dredd craving. Particularly now that I can’t find my awesome PS2 game Judge Dredd: Dredd VS. Death. So, I sought out the film and sat down to view Dredd’s first cinematic outing. And now I shall act as its Judge, Jury, and, possibly, executioner.

Where to begin? The start might be as good a place as any. The opening 5 or so minutes of Judge Dredd 1995 is near perfect. I know right. It establishes the world brilliantly, and introduces the character in a suitably bad-ass fashion. Sure, we’re introduced to the world through the eyes of one of my least favourite actor’s, Rob Schneider (more on him later), but the design of Mega City One is stunningly faithful to the comic book. It is a hive of crazy activity, it is hard to gather what exactly the architectural landscape of the thing is (like any good Sci-Fi dystopian city, they just seemed to have built upwards) but you never get a great sense of that in the comic books, only with certain important locations. It signifies a future that is in chaos, and one that needs a radical law enforcement regime, like the Judges, in an attempt to contain and control any form of society and order.

Once we are given a fly around Mega City One, we are pretty much shoved straight into this dis-order as our friend Schneider, recently released from prison, finds that his new apartment is currently home to a group of rioters who are inciting a block war. It is then time to call the Judges in. Judge Hershey (the lovely as ever Diane Lane) and a Rookie Judge are pinned in the street. They need back up. Cue a very effective, and undeniably cool character introduction. Dredd drives onto the scene, riding his faithfully designed Law-master, and, accompanied by Alan Silvestri’s fantastic score, is revealed in true action icon fashion as he disembarks his vehicle. The costume design is also incredibly faithful, and the action that follows does fantastically well to introduce Dredd’s sensibilities and commitment to upholding the Law of Mega City One. He pretty much takes out all the law breakers by himself, demonstrating the useful capabilities of his Lawgiver gun. And the scene reaches its pinnacle of perfection and cool when Stallone enters the room to confront the last standing rioter. He reels off all the laws that the perpetrator has broken, before landing on the sentence; death. The cold and calculated act is well conceived, and Stallone’s performance is at its least shouty and controlled in this scene, as he calmly exacts the sentence before delivering a line of dead-panned goodness, ‘Court’s adjourned’. It is from this moment that you believe the man before us IS the law. Stallone sells it, the action sells it, and we seem to be in good steed for a decent and entertaining comic book adaptation. Unfortunately, the film fails to maintain or hit the heights of this wonderfully executed opening.

The film gets taken over by the Hollywood Machine, as the film moves from a faithful comic book adaptation to a rather generic Stallone action movie featuring a corrupt police system and Dredd having to prove his name and readdress his priorities and dedication to the system. And ‘develop as a person’ *Shudder*. The problem is, as one of my friends Mr. Ray Chissers stated in discussion, is that the Judges and Hall of Justice are supposed to be the only rock-steady component within this dystopian world. The film rides on the fact that the system is corrupt and willing to break its own restrictions and conditions. The clone story-line, although drawn from the comic-books, is used to layer Dredd and present him with an emotional back story. This is not what Dredd needs. And yes, it is a crime in itself that Stallone removes his helmet. We also have a terrible, terrible villain in the form of Armand Assante’s Rico. Again, Rico is a character that exists within 2000 AD’s catalog, but his role is expanded a great deal here to the extent of being a pantomime villain. I can’t help but think that Assante was only cast because he looks a little bit like Stallone and has the same eye colour. He cannot seem to deliver a line without over-playing it, resulting in a cringe worthy performance. Stallone doesn’t fair much better. His Dredd was much more convincing under the helmet, as otherwise the film just becomes a rather generic Stallone action movie. And the scenes between him and Assante merely result in them shouting ‘LAAAAAAAW‘ rather moronically at each other. And a film should never, ever have Rob Schneider as comic relief. Even in a comedy. He is completely useless and gets in the way the whole time, and does not seem to stop saying Dredd, all the time. A terrible sidekick, and a terrible performance from an embarrassing actor. 

The action takes a turn as well, as there soon develops a sense that the writers were making it up as they were going along; the execution becomes much, much more sloppy and generic once again. The Cursed Earth encounter with The Angel Family is a stand out, thanks entirely to seeing the characters of the Angel Family on screen. But the final act is really rather awful. At one moment, it appears to be setting itself up for a battle with some Zombie Clone warriors, but that never comes to fruition. And for some reason, everything explodes. Unless I missed something, there was never any indication that something had caused the place to explode. It literally just started happening. The final encounter with Dredd and Rico fails to excite as it resorts to a mere punch up on top of the Statue of Liberty. Gone is the deliciously satirical dystopian bite of the opening and the deftly handled violence, as it results to what you’d expect from a Stallone movie (at times, it feels like a poor copy of Demolition Man, a film I’m a big fan of). The tone becomes far too cartoon-esque. This is not something I’d entirely dismiss from a Dredd movie, as the comic-book does have the chaotic energy of a cartoon. But at the same time, it is edgy and brutal. Stallone’s version becomes disappointingly blunt.

There are many elements in Judge Dredd that make the film a pleasure to watch. The music is stunning, one of Slivestri’s more underrated scores, and one that shares similar motifs with his equally pulse-pounding score for Avengers Assemble. The production design remains a feast for the eyes throughout, and Stallone, whilst donned in FULL Dredd Gear is actually inspired casting. He certainly has the chin and stature to carry the role off. But it seems to drop its faith in its source material very quickly in favour of a more accessible, less demanding and as a result, less interesting and original Sci-Fi action movie. I have hope that Karl Urban’s Dredd 3-D corrects these mistakes, and from what I’ve heard, it does do so, with a hell of a punch. So, final verdict on the fate of Judge Dredd; A film with great promise, that falls apart incredibly quickly due to a weak script that falls to Hollywood pressures. If it weren’t for the fact that it was based on a comic-book, it would serve as an entertaining Stallone flick and fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category of action movies. But, due to the potential of its source material, it can only be listed as a wasted opportunity. Stallone Judge Dredd, your sentence, is death. Court’s adjourned.

Here’s a tribute video to both the film (bless) and it’s awesome score so you can experience it’s awesomeness!

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