This review is for the region-free German release of Judge Dredd.
“I am … duh Law!”
Joe Dredd, ultra-right wing future cop and poster boy for the classic comic 2000 AD steps off the pages and blasts his way into long-awaited celluloid and … to the horror of a million devoted fans … removes his helmet and reveals himself to be none other than Sylvester Stallone!
The huge outcry that greeted Danny Cannon’s action-packed and lavishly mounted SF spectacle back in 1995 was, in many ways, totally understandable. Judge Dredd, created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, had been an icon of fantastical hard-line law enforcement, the cyberpunked Dirty Harry of the future Mega-City One and idealised fascist police state, throughout a couple of decades of massively influential escapist crime-fighting and summary executions in the cult publication … and the foundation stone of his stalwart persona, way beyond any political doctrine that he adhered rigidly to, was the simple fact that we never, ever saw his face come out from beneath that uber-cool helmet. Yet this masking was to become more of a stylistic in-joke than anything else, so the humanising of the character by adding a nose and a couple of eyes to that distinctive chin was hardly the, ahem, future shock that many aggressively assumed.
Okay, I'm playing devil's advocate … but we all know that a big Hollywood production of Judge Dredd would require some mega-bucks to seal the deal. Mega-bucks would mean a mega-star taking the lead role. And a mega-star was not going to go anonymous in Mega-City. To get the film made back in 1995, and for a predominantly American audience who did not, with only a few exceptions, actually know who Dredd was, or had even heard of 2000 AD, some of the staple things that had made the character, ahem, mega-popular with British fans were bound to be jettisoned. Way back in 1978, a year after Dredd had been unleashed, American producer Charles M. Lippincott began what would go on to become an exhaustive battle to bring the character to the screen lasting a quarter of a century. He may have understood the ironic quality of this fantastical totalitarian universe and its ruthless, Roman-reflected justice system … but nobody else on the other side of the Pond did. It was a truly hard sell, but something that he passionately believed in and stood by when most producers would have given in and walked away. He found out the hard way that his and the fans' notion of Judge Dredd wouldn't get the green-light and, eventually, he was forced to concede and lose considerable ground in his campaign to have the story lent sound and motion. I still find his determination admirable, however misdirected the final movie ended up.
To me, it seemed only right that Stallone take on the role. I had been a huge fan of 2000 AD since Prog 1, and I still am despite a few lapses here and there, and Brian Bolland’s iconic artwork, reworked over the years by Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, Ron Smith and dynamic uber-heavy from Simon Bisley, was a huge part of my formative years – all things that then relatively fresh Brit director Danny Cannon claimed where the shining inspiration for his big budget creative endeavour. You needed someone who had colossal screen presence to fill Dredd’s boots, and obviously someone who could handle the intense physicality that the role demanded. At that time, there were relatively few action stars who could have given the role the appropriate oomph of rugged charisma. The genuine inspiration for the character, Clint Eastwood, was obviously too old. Kurt Russell had the chin, but was probably far too inherently laid-back and laconic. Schwarzenegger was a distinct possibility, and his accent and robotic line-delivery would have been strangely fitting for a right-wing rozzer who was utterly married to the job and devoid of emotions. But, even then, we would have had the issue of the helmet having to come off to show the real star of the show and, let’s not forget, he could never match Stallone when it came to leaping about and running amok. Seagal was a non-starter, and they would never have gotten the costume to fit him. The point is that, given the action-man story that Michael DeLuca had initially devised, there was really one person who could have realistically pulled it off … and that was Stallone. And, coming straight off the classic tendon-stretching Cliffhanger, and the not too dissimilar Demolition Man (although let’s just forget about The Specialist, eh?) he was numero-uno when it came to muscular mayhem. And it obviously helped that he was a tried and trusted box office glory and close friend of the film’s executive producers, too! He even managed to get his longstanding partner, Tony Munafo, a gig as Associate Producer.
Advance word shrieked of the sacrilege that the casting made. It poked ridicule at the packed and condensed nature of a story that sought to pitch in too many facets from the comic in such a bedlam only the jumbled-up Spider-Man 3 could beat. The accusation was that it would just simply be a Sly Stallone flick shanghaiing a cherished character who had attained just as much of a devoted following in his own right, and a concept that had only grown in stature since its first exposure in 1977! But what I found back when the film was released - and I was someone who prayed that it would work but, in all honesty, was braced to hurl a battery of brickbats at it - was that, perhaps unforgivably in some eyes, I actually loved it far more than I ever expected to.
Now, regular readers will already know how big a fan of Stallone I am, but even I was prepared to lambast him for this supposedly treacherous move. Within seconds of his peerless arrival in the middle of a furious Block-War, Stallone’s Dredd climbs off his impressive Lawmaster motorbike and simply stands amidst a hail of bullets and the incendiaries, impervious to any danger, and issues the unimpeachable declaration of “I am the Law!” to the mob army hanging out of the high-rise tenement buildings, I was hooked. It was the filmic equivalent of the actor facing down his detractors and naysayers. Even with Stallone’s slurring of the classic line, the shivers of excitement still run up and down the spine, and the perfect tone of absurdist machismo is set. And everything seems spot-on. But then, very swiftly afterwards, the helmet is off and Stallone, bedecked in goliath golden eagle-crest and shining bullet-proof codpiece, helpfully designed by Versaci, stands proud and whisks Mega-City One into the swirling testosterone cloud that is the province of the Italian Stallion … and not Tharg. But, the important and actually quite incredible thing about this audacious personalisation of an already authentic legend is that it doesn’t matter a jot, once the action kicks-in. Stallone takes Judge Dredd and adds him to his pantheon of cinematic heroes, hurtling him through a series of very Sly-tinged brawl-fests and even administering him with an appallingly cheesy catchphrase (“I knew you were going to say that” is one of the worst signature motifs that I've heard!) yet still creating a fantastic depiction of the universe that fans know and love. We’ve got the sprawling cityscape – a brighter, more clement variation of Blade Runner’s neon sky-scratcher - the imaginatively variable-ammo Lawgiver side-arms of the Judges (you’ve got to love the “Double-Whammy” option), the Cursed Earth and the notorious Angel Gang, an intimidating ABC Warrior, the Judge Council, and even Diane Lane’s feisty Judge Hershey. Oh, and we’ve got annoying comic sidekick Fergie, played by Rob Schneider. But then, you can’t have the good stuff without a whiff of the naff as well, can you? Even if Fergie is somewhat cleaner and less flyblown than he ever appeared in the comic.
With a war taking place on the streets, psychotic clone Rico (Armand Assante) escaping from his maximum-security prison and heading to town with revenge in mind, Judge Dredd set up and framed for a brutal double-murder, fellow Judges being assassinated left, right and centre, and flesh-eating ghouls making life miserable for our hero once he has found himself stripped of his armour, weapons and status outside of the great walls of Mega-City One, Danny Cannon wraps his stunning vision of a 23rd Century world gone mad around an adaptation of one of the comic’s more accessible story arcs. Renegade Judge Rico, the failed result of the Judge Council’s secret clone-building project, wants to resurrect his army of delinquent brothers and sisters and gain control of the state-sized super-city. He will need the help of some top people on the inside … and they will all need the incorruptible Dredd out of the way. But never judge a Judge, because our granite-hewn boy is not about to give up the good fight without … erm … a bloody good fight.
There are a multitude of avenues that a Dredd film could go down, but Danny Cannon and his writers William Wisher and Steve E. De Souza took a good solid one that would enable them to throw in a few bits and bobs of colourful fantasy that would not be either too obscure or alienating for non-fans, and would possibly bring a knowing smile to devotees. To be sure, what they come up with is a veritable hodgepodge of Dredd lore and Law and, as an action-movie formula, it is nothing new. But as a film that really could have been a springboard to a franchise, this was a barnstorming opening gambit that tried to covere all bases, never fully satisfying any of them but, crucially, leaving you wanting more. Somehow, you know that if he'd been left alone, Cannon would have delivered a proper, full-on and pure Dredd movie. The compromises that he has been forced to make are unfortunate but, unlike many other people, I do not find them crippling.
What they get right is more than enough to compensate.
A nice little touch is the montage of Dredd covers from 2000 AD that opens the film's title sequence, something that both Marvel's and Warner's DC adaptations took on board. The hardware – the Lawmaster bikes are incredible, the Aspen prison shuttle is niftily modelled on a Roman slave galley, the Lawgiver guns are a distinct improvement on the spindly, arrow-pointer versions from the comic, and the copious vehicles that teem across the city's skies give depth and vitality to this future-scape – and the costumes are neat, and cool … and, most importantly, they are right. The blue eyes of the Judges reveal that close-knit, assembly-line approach to law enforcement that this beleaguered society has. And, hey, isn't that Adrienne Barbeau's voice as the Judges' Central Computer? Surely this ties-in with Escape From New York's close cousin of another fascistic police state.
Forget the size of Stallone’s arms – check out his alarmingly blue peepers! They’re absolutely huge, and on Blu-ray they seem even more magnified and bluer than ever. (Yep, they are neon-dazzling contact lenses!) With his close-shorn hair, robotic swagger and arch expressions of Nazi arrogance and superiority, he comes dangerously close to being camp. In his spandex bodysuit and impossibly un-ergonomic armour and chains of authority, he reveals the spectacular impracticality and downright silliness of a costume that, seriously, can only ever look good in the panels of a comic. And yet he makes it work! He knows how daft this looks and his performance whenever he is in full uniform is deliberately over-the-top and stiff, but this is sending himself up more than the beloved character of Dredd. His over-confidence teeters of the brink of parody, but Stallone has already guessed that to play it all dead seriously would only make the audience laugh at him rather than with him. And this self-realisation is the key to maintaining that comic-book feel of massively heightened realism. Once the helmet is off, the “Dreddness” is unavoidably lost and we could be watching any Stallone action-hero from Rambo III up to, but excluding, Copland though, miraculously, this doesn’t harm the film at all. We’ve already bought into his portrayal and accepted him … albeit with some reservations.
Armand Assante's chromosonally damaged clone variation of Dredd actually does have a credible look of Stallone about him and, in the grand scheme of this story, this sort of means that we are required to see Dredd’s face if we are to fully accept their kinship. In his hi-tech cell – which is thematically akin to Hannibal Lector’s jailhouse lair, or the plastic prison of Magneto – he is immediately imbued with fiendish intelligence and that classical Moriarty knack for dark, power-hungry eloquence. Assante has evidently bulked-up for the role, which was probably very necessary considering that he would, at some point, be tasked with going toe-to-toe with Stallone. He is even able to attain the insidious countenance of a shark, which was once the province of the far more benign-looking Roy Scheider. But, as we discover with much of the rest of the movie’s many cool elements, we really want to see more of him. He spits his rage and venom in the face of what he considers to be a spineless authority, and he is also able to engulf his clone-brother with heartfelt hostility as his offer of joint-rule is thrown back at him. There isn’t one iota of originality about this relationship – or any of the story, for that matter – but this doesn’t stop Assante was climbing to Shakespearean heights of leering betrayal and embittered sibling envy. Equipped with a rusty old ABC Warrior, a towering combat-droid from another of 2000 AD’s glitteringly imaginative pages that just happens to fit remarkably well into Dredd’s world, as his pulverising henchman, and a cat-suited oriental minx called Ilsa, after the notoriously once-banned She-Wolf Of The Gestapo, played by an underused Joan Chen, Assante’s Rico hits the ground running, with attitude to spare and some serious anger-management issues.
The ABC Warrior is a simply terrific piece of work. Based on an old, disused version of the comic’s Hammerstein, It looks believably mighty, vastly formidable and sinister, and nuts-and-bolts tangible in the frame alongside the live-action characters. This is where Cannon’s Judge Dredd really shows its mettle. The CG elements, which were still only in their formative years when this was made, look great and, in many instances, far more accomplished and better integrated than they do in much more recent fare – only the flying Lawmaster chase notching-up the cartoon fakery level - but it is the use of practical effects and constructions that the film’s visual creativity really shines. The ABC Warrior is at the forefront of this, and I really wish that it had a bit more to do, though. As it stands, the metallic leviathan mostly just loiters in the background looking mean. But I just adore the scene when Rico first reactivates the old battle-machine and the Warrior asks what its new mission is. “Mission?” Rico replies with a hiss of Little Italy. “We’re going to war.” To which the glowering metal monster growls with incalculable glee, “WARRRRRR!!!!!” It is a moment of bloodcurdling anticipation that the rest of the film never quite delivers upon, but you have to give Cannon the benefit of the doubt … because at least he tried, and it proved that the character could work extremely well in the Dredd universe, and provide a substantial threat.
Unarguably, the Angel Gang require much more screentime. In fact, in a perfect universe, they would get their own saga, along with other 2000 AD stalwarts such as Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper and Flesh. There simply isn’t enough room in this standalone adventure to do them justice. A pure Western throwback, these mutated scavengers are like nightmares expunged from the minds of Sergio Leone and Lucio Fulci. Gibbering Biblical rhetoric with diseased evangelical zeal, Pa Angel (an uncredited Scott Wilson) keeps his foul sons only tenuously in line. The inspiration is clearly drawn from Sawney Bean, the Scottish cannibal, and, by extension, the in-bred family of horrors in The Hills Have Eyes. We somehow lose the epochal and cadaverous Fink Angel in the movie translation, but, Halleluiah Brothers, we’ve still got Mean Angel. Like the ABC Warrior, the potential here was extraordinary. Mean was one of the most memorable villains that Dredd ever went up against (the trans-dimensional Judge Death aside … and whoa-boy, can you imagine him and phantom cohorts in a movie?), and to finally see him captured on film is a truly shuddersome delight. Naturally, if the script had been better constructed and not so episodic and determined to throw in everything except Walter the Wobot, we would have, perhaps, met the Gang a little earlier and discovered hints of what they were capable of, and then had Dredd fall into their clutches later on. Mean, played with glowering evil relish by Chris Adamson, is a fantastic amalgamation of live actor and extensive prosthetic makeup. His cyberised thuggery – his one single arm is a huge machine-tool equipped with blades and a vicious steel claw, his spinal cord is a hydraulic chassis, and his chrome-coated bonce has an aggression dial that allows him to upgrade the monstrous savagery of his headbutts from the relatively civil and polite skull-denting of 1, all the way up to the building demolishing 4 – is renowned in the dynamic pages of 2000 AD, but to have the character given full-blooded venom and to hear his whirring, whining and gutturally rmechanistic cowboy drawl is something that the film gets one-hundred percent correct. Naturally, it is a shame that we don’t get more of Mean, the hulking cyborg “mutie” consigned to only this all-too-brief skirmish. But he does become one of the film’s many high-points.
Repeat-offender Fergie could have been even more irritating than Schneider actually allows him to be … and it is pure Hollywood that he is enabled to get the verbal upper hand on Dredd, just for the sake of a quick and disposable yuk. Jurgen Prochnow, elevated to critically high plaudits for his exemplary performance as a U-Boat commander in the classic Das Boot, but actually a bit of a haphazard character actor elsewhere, is perfectly fine in the simplistic and barely fleshed-out role of Judge Griffin – the cynical law-man with lofty ideas of a ruthless future society. Diane Lane is pretty in dark-blue spandex and even prettier in that natty Judge sports-vest, but really offers nothing more than supporting set decoration as the classic Judge Hershey. Balthazar Getty (what happened to him, then?) is eminently forgettable as a tech-minded cadet-Judge, and Maurice Roeves struggles with an imposed American accent as the doomed warden of the Aspen Penal Colony. It is always great to see James Remar, however. The antagonistic star of The Warriors, 48 Hrs, Rent-a-Cop and Clan Of The Cave Bear just gets to portray a scumbag Block-War activist in the pulverising opening of Judge Dredd, but he clearly relishes his gun-toting screentime of wanton anarchy and destruction. Lethal Weapon's Mitchell Ryan gets to rehash the sort of probing journalism that we saw in Predator 2 … and gets to pay a severe price for it. And there is even a nice little cameo from Ian Drury, sans The Blockheads, who plays the homage-monikered “Geiger”, a backstreet purveyor of weapons of destruction, even if some of them are politely termed as “antiques”. But the real gravitas that Cannon and Vajna attained for their movie was the appearance of Max Von Sydow, who brings a rather clichéd father/son relationship to his protective admiration of Dredd, but is still able to invest his regal and inspiring Chief Judge Fargo with the necessary nobility. Sydow has long been the name that filmmakers love to have on their posters and in their title credits. In their minds, it lends their films, however poor and clearly beneath an actor of Sydow’s calibre they may be, a status that justifies their production and marketing. To wit, Solomon Kane, The Wolfman and Shutter Island. There’s a sort of spiritual connection between Sydow’s magnanimous authority figure in Judge Dredd and the much more pivotal and better written role he took in Spielberg’s Minority Report. But before we condemn his part in this much more low-brow affair, it is more accurate to cite it as actually being very good. This is a man who loves the letter of the law, and had a huge hand in its rule across the ravaged post-nuclear landscape and the bristling society that has grown up in its dust and fume swamped environment. He looks good and fully deserving of respect in his Chief Judge garb, and asides from a severely truncated tour of duty in the Cursed Earth, bestows the film a genuinely sense of dignity. Oh, and hey … SPOILER ALERT … he delivers a really convincing take on the clichéd death-bed scene.
The film went through multiple script revisions, and this does show. There were lots of story arcs that were considered for Dredd’s big screen debut – but most would have been too costly, too ambitious and too confusing for those unfamiliar with the milieu. It is also clear that Cannon, who knew what he was doing, came into conflict with heavy-hitting executive producers Andrew Vajna and Ed Pressman who had different ideas about how to make the adaptation more user-friendly and mass-marketable. And Stallone, himself, played a huge part in not only getting the film off the ground, but also in the editing process. Now I believe that Sly’s heart was in the right place – he was the one who insisted that the costume-designers and the art department stick as close to the comic’s aesthetic as they could, and had them revert to Dredd’s look far more faithfully than they had initially been prepared to go – but this was a superstar who was also an accomplished filmmaker, himself, and at the end of the day, this may have resulted in too many captains attempting to steer the ship. Obviously, a lot of creative compromises had to be made in order to make a much more conventionally streamlined action film with clear-cut motivations and only a little bit of nefarious, twisty-turny skulduggery to tweak the narrative in the right direction. The cuts made to this narrative are actually quite painful though, and terribly abrupt and jarring once we move into the final act. They definitely did shoot scenes of Dredd battling the clone army that Rico has raised, but these have been removed – possibly because they just didn’t work all that well - which lessens the impact and the suspense of the big fight in the lab quite considerably. There is a cast listing for Fink Angel, yet the character does not actually appear in the film. Cannon has said that the character was hard to integrate into the story, so he may only have stood on-set for a brief and elusive test. The devious change of character for the film’s version of the comic’s fine and upstanding Judge Griffin is a touch strange, but it actually works quite well in this peculiar plot strand, although the execution of the Judge Council is far too “convenient” and the easygoing nature of the cadets is totally at odds with the emotionless law enforcers that they are supposed to be getting moulded into.
But, in its favour, the movie aims for a techno-grandeur amidst the captivating comic-book visuals, the elaborate sets built at Shepperton Studios suitably awe-inspiring and the cinematography is ravishing. DOP Adrian Biddle was no stranger when it came to large-scale fantasy productions, with Aliens, Willow and The Princess Bride under his belt before he tackled Dredd, and the likes of The Mummy trilogy and V For Vendetta proudly following up on this kinetic, detailed and fluid display of futuristic world immersion. Our initial appreciation of Dredd, as his companions call for back-up, is lent a mythic camera-prowl that takes in his powerful Lawmaster bike in a similar fashion to how Max Rockatansky was first introduced in Mad Max. When Judge Fargo undertakes the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth to bring the Law to the lawless (a wonderful Biblical twist), Alan Silvestri’s resplendent score provides a swelling dignity and sacrificial pride to accompany the strong visual image of Sydow’s dust-devil lawman leaving civilisation and embarking on his dangerous and, indeed, potentially suicidal quest in earnest. A nice touch is the row of Judges having to look away as the harsh apocalyptic sunlight floods into the great hall as the huge doors are opened. The only thing that knocks such moments as these, and others, down a peg or two, is that they are over and done with much too quickly, Cannon and his producers too eager, it seems, to cut to the chase. They have created a mythical landscape, a believable city and a society that we are keen to explore, but it often seems as if they, themselves, doubt the credibility of their own construction. There was clearly a bigger, and a better film at the heart of this, and you get the impression that we are only seeing the whistle-stop high-lights from it. Frustrating, of course … but there is an addictive quality to the film that means it never outstays its welcome and easily rewards repeat viewing.
The aforementioned Alan Silvestri had already taken the action genre by the scruff of the neck and beat it to a pulp with his cult scores for Predator and Back To The Future (see separate CD reviews for both), The Abyss and The Delta Force (CD also reviewed), and he is still going strong with simply marvellous soundtracks for the likes of the otherwise mediocre Van Helsing, Beowulf, GI Joe and The A-Team. His full score for Judge Dredd is epic, powerful and ingeniously valorous. He hits the big moments with an impressive bass heavy broadside of deep, militaristic percussion that is clearly as satirical as it is emphatic. He is having fun with this empirical world of far-out martial law and on-the-spot justice-dealing. But his most enjoyable contributions can be found in his suitably Predator-related material for the Angel Gang and their dungeon-like lair of torture and improvised human barbecues. Fans still await a proper release of the complete score, although the full promo-release (with some grand alternate cues) can probably still be found by those prepared to cast their “Net” a little wider.
Ultimately, Cannon’s cruelly underrated film kills two birds with one stone. It is not only a fantastic Stallone vehicle, the last before his resurgence with Rocky Balboa, Rambo and The Expendables, but a genuinely good inaugural outing for Judge Dredd as well. It may remove the helmet and hurl a dozen or so plot strands into the pot, but this is still probably the most immediately accessible story to both please fans of the character and to introduce newcomers to 2000 AD’s world of totalitarian Mega-City justice – providing you make the necessary allowances. is colourful, action-packed and highly entertaining. There are lots of ideas running through it about the use of hard-line law enforcement, the ethics of cloning and the whole idea of an eco-starved society based upon a fever-dreamt Roman ideal, but, at the end of the day, this is just a supreme example of thrilling, if cheesy comic-book SF fantasy …which makes for a great popcorn flick for the masses, and a tantalising glimpse for the devoted of just how cinematic Judge Dredd can actually be.
The Yanks didn't appreciate the film, probably expecting it to have been Demolition Man 2, and the seventeen years of wrangling that Lippincott went through to get Dredd on to the screen were greeted with a bemused whimper rather than a roar of appreciation. Danny Cannon was massively hurt by the disruptive influences that he felt the star and his executive producers enforced upon him during the production, later charging that the film had little left in it of the original script, and Stallone’s Judge Dredd is a supreme example of the suits losing their nerve and attempting to melt down bold creativity into a crude ten-a-penny shoot-em-up. The star, himself, expressed regret that the finished film wasn't a better translation of the character. Although some areas claim otherwise, he has actually said that he had already been a fan before the pitch came his way and knew how important it was to get it right, yet he still bowed-down to peer pressure and proceeded to make Dredd into just another hand-me-down hero to fit into his back-pocket. Personally, I don't have too much of problem with this. As a Stallone film, Judge Dredd is vigorous stuff. But as a Judge Dredd film, it is watered-down, user-friendly and something of a missed opportunity. But the important thing is that it looks terrific and it still offers a rollicking SF adventure that is wild escapist fun.
We all have high hopes for Karl Urban’s chinless interpretation, of course, but Dredd, Stallone-style, should not be underestimated. It was brave but a flawed attempt that, viewed in the right frame of mind, delivers plenty to enjoy.
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