I’m not sure a faithful Judge Dredd movie could have found an audience in America pre-9/11. The character’s embrace of fascist law enforcement is based on a combination of totalitarian practicality and right-wing fearmongering, the kind of “truthy” justification for dismissing due process that our namby-pamby liberal society would have rejected as unrealistically cynical (or worse, dangerously subversive) until the past decade, when societal paranoia and overt xenophobia became, if not common, then at least a plausible exaggeration of our recent national state of mind. As proof, I present Exhibit A: 1995’s Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by Danny Cannon, and Exhibit B: Dredd 3D, starring Karl Urban and directed by Pete Travis.
Despite some superficial similarities in costume design and character, there could not be two more different adaptations of a comic book on record. I am, to be clear, including Batman & Robin and The Dark Knight in this comparison. At least Joel Schumacher’s movie accepted that there was a Batman. Judge Dredd spends its entire running time apologizing for its hero’s existence, as if the studio was simply ashamed to be bringing the comic book character to life in the first place. Travis’s Dredd accepts not just the hero but also his ideology, as problematic as it might be. You may disagree with a totalitarian justice system but, unironically, it’s not your place to judge. This is the world you are given in Dredd 3D, whether you like it or not.
Judge Dredd, on the other hand, exerts all of its energy repudiating the politics of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s comic book series. In Danny Cannon’s film we are introduced to the world of Mega-City One, where the whole of society lives because a nuclear apocalypse has rendered the rest of the planet uninhabitable. Keeping law and order in this densely populated super-structure (which does, to its credit, still have a successful chain of Jack in the Boxes) is so paramount that the police department calls its beat cops “judges,” because they’re given the authority to both arrest and sentence lawbreakers on the spot. The most feared judge of all is Judge Dredd, played by Sylvester Stallone, who completely embraces the word of the law and must, presumably to appease the politically correct audiences of the 1990s, learn a valuable lesson about due process and friendship before the movie is through.
For whatever reason, Rob Schneider is not only in Judge Dredd but is also frequently blamed for its suckiness (if you’ll forgive the technical jargon). Schneider plays a recent parolee who is sent immediately back to jail by Dredd for stumbling into a firefight and hiding in – and therefore vandalizing – public property. While yes, Rob Schneider spends the bulk of the film acting like Rob Schneider (generally considered a bad idea), the real issue is the function his character serves in the plot, namely shaming, and by extension later humanizing, Judge Dredd, who winds up framed for murder and sitting next to Schneider on a prison transport, helpless to stop Schneider from waxing rhapsodic about the failures of the justice system Dredd still claims to blindly support.
The law doesn’t make mistakes, Dredd claims, prompting Schneider to ask how Dredd could have been wrongly convicted if that were the case. Rather than stick up for himself, and justify his convictions with a reasonable philosophical response (surely Dredd would believe that it’s better for one innocent man to be imprisoned than hundreds to go free in a society that is, by necessity, micromanaged by the government), he’s forced to admit that Schneider is right. And no one should ever have to admit that Rob Schneider is right.
The main plot of 1995’s Judge Dredd focuses on a political conspiracy to wrest control of Mega-City One and replace the legion of faithful judges with a legion of faithful clones of Armand Assante, who is himself a clone of Judge Dredd, who is himself a clone. Why is Judge Dredd a clone? Because that’s the only reason why any person could divorce himself from his emotions and prioritize law and order over human compassion and friendship, apparently. Nobody could possibly believe that fascism was the right way to go, particularly in a comic book movie, and particularly if they’re the hero, so Judge Dredd runs rings around itself to make Dredd the object of pity rather than a hero with a complex philosophy. The film’s aggressively simplistic dialogue and outlandish production design (Stallone’s codpiece makes David Bowie’s Labyrinth get-up look conservative) only cements the film’s attempts to simplify the character and his world for audiences who, surely, could not have possibly accepted the story for what it is. Was Judge Dredd made for kids? Certainly, since Judge Dredd was a comic book movie in the post Tim Burton Batman era, but more importantly it was made for their parents, who could not be marketed a comic book movie that might be inappropriate for their youngsters.
Pete Travis’s Dredd 3D, on the other hand, expects you to accept Judge Dredd’s world so readily that they barely establish it, plunking you right in the middle of Mega-City One and in the middle of Dredd’s daily routine. Whereas Judge Dredd gives the hero a brief mission to establish his status quo, namely killing James Remar (the only possible way to make a hero in a giant gold codpiece seem like a badass), before telling a story that questions and upheaves the entire world of the character, Dredd 3D feels no need to encapsulate the entire society of the film within its running time. The effect is like reading a standalone issue of the comic book without catching up on anything that preceded it. You’re not missing anything, you’re just expected to accept everything Dredd 3D presents as the reality of the Mega-City One. As a result, you do accept it, unlike in the original film, which spends 96 minutes apologizing for being made in the first place.
The story of Dredd 3D finds Judge Dredd, played by Karl Urban, breaking in a new recruit, Judge Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby. She seems particularly fresh-faced because she never wears her judge’s helmet. It interferes with her psychic abilities, which are the only reason why she’s been given the opportunity to be Dredd’s partner in the first place after barely failing her exams. In contrast, Judge Dredd never takes his helmet off, a symbol of his commitment to protocol as well as his embodiment of the judicial system. Dredd is never humanized, although he is clearly human in biology. Stallone’s Dredd spends most of the film without his helmet, partially because they paid for Sylvester Stallone and thus needed to actually show Sylvester Stallone, but mostly because they needed to show that he’s really a good person who just needs friends and compassion to be happy.
Urban’s Dredd is never happy. A basic tenet of strong storytelling is that any character who is good at their job – be they good, bad or morally compromised – immediately earns the audience’s respect. In Dredd 3D, Judge Dredd qualifies. His reaction to the film’s primary storyline, in which he and Anderson are trapped in a 200-story skyscraper and forced to fight off its thousands of inhabitants, is stoicism. Just another day at the office, no matter how high the stakes have been raised. The building has been sealed off by Ma-Ma, played by Lena Headey as a scarred former prostitute who now runs a powerful drug ring from the top floors. Dredd and Anderson have arrested one of her lieutenants and must be killed before they can force him to testify against her.
Simple, efficient storytelling and, while coincidentally reminiscent to The Raid (a thrilling Indonesian action movie from earlier this year, with a similar, albeit non-sci-fi set up), also superior thanks to a more intriguing cast of characters and pace that occasionally lets up, allowing later action sequences to carry the same dramatic weight as the earlier ones. Judge Dredd’s action sequences, in contrast to Dredd 3D’s, are often random in their conception, forcing the hero to square off against cannibal Road Warrior knock-offs for no other pertinent reason than to fill time, and a handful of half-formed zombie clones.
Dredd’s female companions in each film are also distinctly different. Judge Hershey, played by Diane Lane, is allowed to be more than a love interest in Judge Dredd, because she ably defends Dredd in court and uncovers the government conspiracy, but is later relegated to the object of kissing and only permitted to fight the film’s only other female character, played by Joan Chen and introduced late in the film as an apparent afterthought, presumably just for this purpose. Olivia Thirlby, as the rookie, is given the film’s surrogate emotional response to callous justice, hesitating at the thought of dispensing death sentences. Which makes it all the more intriguing that she goes through with it anyway. By this point she, and the audience, has come to understand that the world of Dredd 3D is sufficiently violent and corrupt that authoritative and authoritarian action is a practical response. Because she accepts this, the audience does as well, and her character is bolstered as a complex individual as a result.
The matter-of-factness to Dredd 3D makes it truly compelling filmmaking, easy to engage with and rich enough to warrant close analysis. Judge Dredd was, let’s be honest, made for children, or at least adult audiences to be condescended to like children. It’s a product of a simpler era of comic book adaptations, in which complexity was traded for overt style, which the Blade Runner-esque Mega-City One admittedly had with surprising detail. I suspect that with a name change, disassociating 1995's Judge Dredd from the comic book property, the film could be accepted as modest camp entertainment, a less enthralling but capable Flash Gordon for the 1990s. As a Judge Dredd movie, however, it falls dramatically short.
Judge Dredd has been re-released on Blu-ray this week, with a decent transfer and almost no special features, tying in to this weekend’s theatrical release of Dredd 3D. Watching them together is an illuminating experience that brings into focus just how far comic book adaptations, and the culture to which they are marketed, has come in the last decade and a half. I can’t say that I entirely recommend Judge Dredd, but if ever there was a reason to watch it, a double feature with Pete Travis’s superior cinematic interpretation of the comic book is it.
Judge Dredd (1995):
Dredd 3D (2012):