“I AM the law!” The 2000 A.D. Comics character Judge Dredd would first hit cinemas around the world in the summer of 1995, but if the film were a person, he would’ve judged it and executed it on the spot. Co-financed by Cinergi and Hollywood Pictures (with Hollywood Pictures handling the domestic theatrical and home video releases), Judge Dredd was directed by Danny Cannon (The Young Americans), written by William Wisher Jr. and Steven E. de Souza, and based on characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. It features a cast that includes Sylvester Stallone (as Judge Dredd), Diane Lane (as Judge Hershey), Rob Schneider as (Herman “Fergee” Ferguson), Armand Assante (as the villainous Rico), Jurgen Prochnow (as Judge Griffin), and Max Von Sydow (as Chief Judge Fargo). In the United States the film earned $37 million at the box office (its budget was $90 million). Welcome to the trial of Judge Dredd.
The court is now in session. The 1995 film Judge Dredd is charged with the crime of being a terrible movie that should never have been made. The defendant has pleaded not guilty (I knew he’d say that). The prosecution will now proceed to make its case.
Exhibit A: The story
The storyline for this film might’ve been appropriate had this been the fourth or fifth Dredd film, but not for a first film. In an interview with Empire Magazine last year, John Wagner stated that he was upset that ‘the film had nothing to do with Dredd and that Dredd wasn’t even Dredd.’ Dredd was not really the main focus of the movie (as he should’ve been). He is in the movie a lot, but there’s so many things going on (with so many characters) that at some point I even forgot about Dredd. It’s not like Hollywood couldn’t make a Judge Dredd film that focused solely on him, but this is exactly the kind of story I’d expect; instead of focusing on crafting a good story, a story was crafted that would appeal to all demographics with characters that exist solely to appease said demographics. This version of Dredd hardly resembles the one from the comics. He’s a Hollywood-ized version (the hero that kills the bad guy and gets the girl). This Dredd is also Rocky-ized (or is it Rocky-ied?), meaning that his being framed and his quest to prove his innocence makes him an underdog (like Rocky). I don’t mind this formula as long as a good story is told. However, the villainous scheme is poorly planned out, none of the characters are developed enough to care for (except for maybe Dredd), and, of course, Dredd must have a catch phrase not derived from the comics since this is a Hollywood action film in the ’90s. I find it difficult to believe that “I knew you’d say that” is the best that the writers could come up with.
Stallone himself regrets the missed opportunities the film had. In an interview with “Uncut Magazine” in 2008, Stallone stated that, “It showed how if we don’t curb the way we run our judicial system, the police may end up running our lives. It dealt with archaic governments; it dealt with cloning and all kinds of things that could happen in the future. It was also bigger than any film I’ve done in its physical stature and the way it was designed. All the people were dwarfed by the system and the architecture; it shows how insignificant human beings could be in the future…But for me it is more about wasting such great potential there was in that idea; just think of all the opportunities there were to do interesting stuff with the Cursed Earth scenes. It didn’t live up to what it could have been. It probably should have been much more comic, really humorous, and fun. What I learned out of that experience was that we shouldn’t have tried to make it Hamlet; it’s more Hamlet and Eggs…” And it doesn’t help that the worst change from the comics for Dredd was that he took off his helmet (which he never did in the comics, thus enraging his creators and fans). A lot of the nuances from the comic were lost when adapted for a Hollywood motion picture. Dredd rarely removes his helmet in the comics, and when he does, his face is never shown. According to John Wagner, “It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul. So it isn’t necessary for readers to see Dredd’s face, and I don’t want you to.”
This version of Dredd plays it safe. It introduces a few interesting ideas, but doesn’t really follow through. Some of those, such as Dredd’s friendship with Rico in the past, a society that has street judges that act as police officers, judge, jury, and executioner, and the clone judges are all interesting ideas that should’ve been explored further but weren’t. In fact, the clone judges are a perfect metaphor for the film: an interesting idea that’s not fully developed or explored.
Exhibit B: Judge Griffin and his evil scheme
Judge Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow) plans to use imprisoned Judge Rico to frame Judge Dredd as part of his plan to become Chief Judge and establish a new order. What amazes me is why he ever thought that he could control Rico or that Rico would obey (like a dog). He had no reason to, and yet he did it anyway. You could see the “betrayal” coming from a mile away. According to Owen Gleiberman of “Entertainment Weekly,” ‘the movie pits Dredd against his long-lost criminal brother, Rico (Armand Assante), who frames him for murder and then slaughters the city’s brigade of law-enforcement judges. He intends to replace them with clones of himself, a plan so megalomaniacal it actually succeeds in making you forget that Dredd’s death-squad tactics are just a quieter form of fascist posturing.’ What bothers me is that Griffin isn’t even a sympathetic character on any level. He wasn’t misguided; he didn’t set out with good intentions but strayed from the path. He was just a nut; that’s why I was appalled when the writers tried to make him sympathetic right before the robot ripped him apart. Why? He didn’t earn our sympathy; he certainly didn’t deserve any. Did they really think that Rico’s betrayal would justify sympathy? Well, it didn’t.
Exhibit C: Fergee
I don’t know where to start with this one. Rob Schneider’s character Fergee is proof that not every action movie needs comic relief (well, not extremely lousy comic relief anyway). His character at least should’ve been killed at the beginning during the block war sequence. Instead, he lived to annoy viewers every time he appeared. I also hated that he just happened to be seated next to Dredd on the shuttle to Aspen Penal Colony. How rarely are prisoners transported there? It’s unlikely that he’d really be waiting a long time for transport had it not been for the convenience of the story. Geoff Andrew of “Time Out London” describes Fergee as an ‘irritating sidekick…to add human feeling and comic relief,’ and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times describes him as ‘badly out of tune.’
(To be continued in: The Trial of Judge Dredd Part Two)