Someone argued that 1995’s Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone as the Judge, or ‘The Law’ himself was a, ‘so bad it’s good‘ type of film (to borrow a phrase from Jack Gooding). Having read around on the film bloggersphere, others have called it: ‘one of the worst films ever made’; ‘a huge flop’; ‘a cult classic’. I only recently watched the film and oh dear God, I hope to never see it again. Starting with such a strong statement might just give away my verdict, but anyone who has seen Judge Dredd will understand… I hope.
Though it is arguable as to whether Dredd is a remake of Judge Dredd or not, there is no doubting that the character was rebooted in the 2012 movie so I’m going to give a pass for the sake of this piece.
The two films that are going head to head this week are Judge Dredd (1995), directed by Danny Cannon, and 2012’s Dredd, directed by Pete Travis. Both directors are British, and both have directed TV episodes of successful television shows – Cannon directed the pilot of Gotham but mainly produces, whereas Travis’ last directing job was on the rather good spy drama for the BBC, Legacy. My point here is that most people probably haven’t heard of these directors, so the films were relying on their ‘star power’ and source material to hook you in.
Back in the 90’s, Stallone was a rather big household name when it came to action films (apart from Antz, 1999, of course) and was the absolute perfect choice for Dredd. Also back in the 90’s, filmmakers didn’t really know how to tackle comic book adaptations. Of course, Batman Returns is the exception to the rule. The atmosphere of the film, the sets, the costumes, the typical 90’s actors appearing – including an over glamorised appearance from Twin Peaks’ Joan Chen (her character was borderline pointless) – all created the perfect set-up for a great film about a post apocalyptic world where Judges are the law, trying to clear scum bags off the streets of Mega City One. In the end, the film is let down on three fronts.
- The explanation in the exposition – It’s just words on a screen, no visual. The first scene we see is Rob Schneider’s petty tech thief being released back into the city after serving time in jail. We, the audience, don’t really get a feel for the environment until the shooting starts and people start talking about ‘block wars’.
- The script and story – The story is poor in that this film was meant to be an introduction to the character Judge Dredd, especially to those who weren’t familiar with the comics or comic lore at the time, and was meant to entice the die hard fans of 2000 AD. Instead, the story that is chosen is one shattering the named character’s life. He finds out he was part of an experiment and that his background was all a lie; not to mention that his previous evil partner is actually his brother. Seems all too much for a film that only has Dredd follow the law for about 15 minutes before he gets framed and arrested for murder. Maybe it would have worked much better to see a film where Dredd is in full action mode? All he really does in this film is scream ‘I am the law‘, making him seem more like a whiny child than a brutal badass force of nature. Granted, there are quite a few characters and storylines that cross over here, but really it’s just one big narrative mess.
- A minor detail was massively overlooked – In the comics, Dredd never removed his helmet. In Judge Dredd (1995), he removes his helmet near to the beginning of the film. Illusion shattered. This was clearly a move to ensure that the star power of its lead actor was a factor in audience participation. It’s a small element but there is a lot to be said for following this important part of a cult character. Stallone is an absolutely perfect choice for Dredd as, despite the yelling and annoying lines, his jawline is perfect for this character… helmet and all. But, there in lies the problem: he looks the part but he’s not Dredd.
Looking at the posters, even they express a different meaning. One says ‘In the future, only one man is the law’ and the other presents the words: ‘Judgement is coming’. The first is all about one man and nothing else it seems, whereas the second is implying judgement is coming for all. The background also makes the world bigger than Dredd himself, indicating that there’s more to the story than this one guy.
With regard to 1995’s Judge Dredd, the only really impressive part of the film, I found, were the costumes designed by Versace.
And so, onto Dredd (2012); a movie I saw against my will in 3D. In comparison to its predecessor, this film is brilliant! 3D is certainly not needed. Dredd is played by Karl Urban who does an excellent job of playing the ultimate Judge. He doesn’t have the strong jaw line and his voice isn’t the deepest and most booming voice you’ve heard, but he has presence. His casting ensured that this wasn’t a movie about its star, like the Stallone starring predecessor, and Urban really does glide through the film with ease amid the violence and chaos. He also, importantly, gets quite significantly injured, which I thought was important to see as it reminded us that he’s not a God, he’s just a guy.
The story is also extremely entertaining. I actually watch Dredd whenever it rains or I don’t feel too well – for some reason it comforts me. Still set in Mega-City One, we are introduced to the sprawling city through a voiceover intro that is far more effective than the text of its predecessor. In the opening sequence we see the city, its people and the judges in action. The main plot focuses on one mega block where a drug gang has taken over; a mega block that is discovered to be the distribution centre for a new drug in the city. Dredd and his rookie, Anderson, are sent in after three gang members are found dead. They have to battle their way to the top floor take out the gang leader after the block goes into lock-down. It’s very bloody and yes, violent, but remains entertaining throughout. Oh, and Dredd never removes his helmet.
Although Diane Lane plays the ‘female’ judge in the 1995 film, she is literally just that. She is out-manned by criminals and needs assistance, then she makes mistakes in the courtroom and then only fights another girl in the climactic battle. Oh, and she kisses Dredd. But, in 2012, things are better. Not only is the main villain sadistic and crazy, but she is also a woman, complete with background story that you believe. There are also a few other women dotted around the film, including Dredd’s superior and a woman who helps the two judges escape to another floor in the building. The main female character, Judge Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, can hold her own, defending herself even when she is captured. She is used as a great contrast to Dredd in that she never wears a helmet in the film. I liked that touch (if it was deliberate). She has psychic powers which is why she doesn’t wear it. Another brilliant and overlooked success at Anderson and Dredd’s partnership is that there is literally no hint of romance. While watcing the film, you don’t think about this but once its pointed out you realise. It’s a true partnership or mentor/mentee relationship and it works so well.
Verdict: There are two ways to look at these films, as adaptations and as simple action films. As I don’t really know much about the original comics and have only tried to read one of them (I didn’t like the artwork), as adaptations I would say that both used elements of stories and characters to appease the fans but 1995’s Judge Dredd failed in consistency, whereas 2012’s Dredd was better as the writing was better,and the story was more compact while still in keeping with the film world of 2000 AD. If I was just comparing two actions films, then Dredd (2012) of course wins no questions asked.