RECAP: Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd (1995): Danny Cannon

Judge Dredd was a comic book first. It never reached the cultural cache of Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, or the X-Men, much less the cultural icons Batman and Superman. However, the helmeted judge patrolling the streets of Mega City One still made it to the big screen before those first three characters I mentioned.

The character calls for a subdued but principled man to play the by-the-book character. Instead, he got Sylvester Stallone at his hammiest and steroid-est. The movie suffers for it.

In this future megalopolis, 65 million people are policed by judges. Men and women are trained to be cop, judge, jury, and, sometimes, executioner.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: I AM THE LAW.

Hero (2/10)

“I am. The Law.” These are Sylvester Stallone‘s first words as Judge Dredd. His first expression is a sneer. Arriving at the scene of a block war, Dredd stands tall as bullets rain down around him and at him, but not into him.

No fear, no emotions at all. That’s the kind of guy Judge Dredd is. This early firefight tells us all we need to know of Dredd’s character. He berates two other judges for taking cover when the effective lethal range of the weapons being fired at them is shorter than their distance away.

Get your sneer on, Dredd.
Get your sneer on, Dredd.

Immediately Dredd leads the other two judges into an apartment building to judge the shooters. Most cops would enter a room by its lone door. Dredd operates on a different level. In this case literally, as he shoots a circle in the floor above, cartoon-like. Dredd falls through the floor and kills several gunmen. “This room has been pacified,” he says.

One door over, however, a rookie judge is shot. Dredd sweeps over the doorway by shooting this new batch of gunmen in the knees. He activates the double whammy, which fires two rounds at once from his handgun, killing two men with one bullet.

Suddenly, one guy remains alive, the ringleader of the block war. Thick-booted Dredd approaches him, reading his crimes and his sentences. Most of the crimes carried prison time, but killing a judge, that’s death, my friend, and you’re about to bite the big one. Dredd executes the leader. “Court’s adjourned,” he says.

Over-the-top sneer? Check. Corny one-liners? Check. Religious adherence to an ethics code despite any extenuating circumstances? Check. Judge Dredd parodies himself and enjoys doing it.

Dredd’s partner on the streets, Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), finds it strange that Dredd never shows emotions. “Ought to be a law against it,” Dredd scoffs.

Judge Hershey trying to get through to Dredd, like any good partner would.
Judge Hershey trying to get through to Dredd, like any good partner would.

Judge Dredd never wavers from his beliefs, despite the drastic turns his life takes in the coming days. He will be framed for murder, convicted of murder, sent to prison, survive a jet crash, fight off a band of cannibals, learn that he had neither mother nor father, learn that he has a brother, learn that his brother is a criminal mastermind, learn that he sent his brother to prison, fight that brother, and kill him.

Also, he has to hang out with Rob Schneider. Despite all this, Dredd never breaks. His lack of emotions might be the key to his survival and success.

A little background about Dredd. Judge Joseph Dredd was a clone created from the assembled DNA of esteemed judges on the hallowed Council of Judges. Dredd was part of a since-dismantled program called Janus, which was meant to create prefect judges, emotionless men and women who could police the streets because they were literally made to do it.

Dredd wasn’t the only clone created. Most were destroyed, but Dredd was saved by Chief Justice Fargo (Max von Sydow). Also saved was Rico (Armand Assante), Dredd’s brother-from-another-vat-of-embryo-generation. Dredd made the perfect beat cop, Rico the perfect insane villain.

Dredd navigates his new world order with the same pride and certainty with which he navigates his normal life. He’s fond of telling excuse-making criminals that the law does not make mistakes. When he asks criminals how they plead, and they say “not guilty,” Dredd responds with, “I knew you’d say that,” and he sentences them anyway.

Yet when Dredd sits in a seat on his way to prison for a murder he didn’t commit, he still berates a criminal beside him, saying, “The law doesn’t make mistakes.” However, Dredd struggles to spit out the words. He loses some conviction, but never belief. That’s the mark of a true believer.

Stallone, as Dredd, seems like the perfect guy to play a man of total conviction. Problem is, some acting skill is required, and we’re talking about the all-time winningest Razzie actor. Stallone did not bring his A game to the role. He didn’t bring any game except yelling and sneering.

Villain (1/10)

Armand Assante plays the murderous psychopath Rico, a former judge and fellow clone. His DNA matches Dredd’s, a characteristic that comes in handy later.

Rico first appears inside a solitary confinement chamber in the Aspen supermax prison. He’s so dangerous that his chamber is surrounded by machine gun turrets that can only be deactivated by the recognized voiceprint of the prison’s warden.

Sums up the performance
Sums up the performance

The warden discusses life with Rico as he hands him a gift sent by their “mysterious benefactor.” It’s Rico’s old judge badge and an undetected gun. Rico assembles the gun as the warden asks him what he thinks the meaning of life is. “It ends,” Rico says as he shoots the warden in the neck. This doesn’t kill him, but it makes his voice unrecognizable to the gun turrets, and they kill him.

Before this, we learn more about Rico’s world view. Sent to the slammer for killing innocent people in the line of duty, Rico scoffs at the idea. “Guilt and innocence,” he tells the warden, “is a matter of timing.”

To Rico, all people are guilty, and he wants to wipe them out. He knows about the Janus project and clone experiments and all that, and he’s prepared to unleash new clones on the city. Remember, Rico’s world is one of perpetual crime, squalor, and devalued human life. Clones might make for a better society.

On the way to creating a new world order, Rico must get his hands dirty. Back in Mega City One, he finds a box of his old gear, including a Lawgiver, one of the most awesome weapons around, and only usable by a judge.

Rico murders a pawn shop owner for kicks, and he activates a hulking, rusting robot with a pronounced jaw, an antique item with one mission: be Rico’s bodyguard. He also shows a penchant for smoking cigars, another good way to kill people, but more slowly.

Rico frames Dredd for murder, easily done because they share DNA, helps install a new chief justice sympathetic to his view of new world order, and restarts the Janus project, this time with his DNA as the template for a batch of clones that can be grown in eight hours.

Rico’s plan is a good one. He wants to create an army of super-judges to roam the streets. Rico infuses them with his DNA as a template, and he expects them to be made in his image. He’ll have to train them their entire lives, because otherwise they’ll end up like Dredd.

Rico’s fight skills do not degenerate in lock up. He outfights Dredd, city’s best judge, and only some trickery allows Dredd the upper hand.

Rico claims that he’s not insane–scoffs at the idea–assuring his benefactors that he knows exactly what he’s doing. Sounds like psychopathic behavior, but not insane.

Assante acts as if he’s insane. Few actors seem to be cracked out on screen, as Assante does here. “I’m fear,” he says. “I’m the chaos. I am the new beginning!” These statements come later and echo nicely Dredd’s speech patterns. Both these brothers are total committers. Assante finds a way to out-ham Stallone at his hammiest.

 

Action/Effects (0/10)

Judge Dredd eschews action set pieces for sensational violence. The opening riot provides a good example. Gangsters, armed with enormous weapons that appear to wear less than the ammo they carry, spray the streets and opposing buildings with gunfire. These guns might as well be Super Soakers.

Dredd arrives and attacks the men with unrestrained violence. He kills every one of them. He sprays bullets in rooms like paint on walls. All the men are guilty, and Dredd’s having a bad day.

Look at all them large, fancy guns.
Look at all them large, fancy guns.

Each gun fired in Judge Dredd has no recoil, bright bursts, and booming sounds. The guns sound like car engines, effects evoking a world of oppressive, unrelenting violence. Message received. Guards at Aspen carry rifles nearly as long as they are tall.

The Lawgiver is a cool gun. Voice-activated and only operable by judges, the handgun has the following modes: grenade, single-shot, automatic, signal flare, and a double whammy that fires two rounds at angles.

Props to the team for creating the bodyguard robot, a hulking brute with orange eyes  and rusting chassis. No one would mistake this thing for a nursing bot.

For a city awash in violence, Judge Dredd doesn’t have much of it. Fights are over in seconds. No extended gun battles are shown in a city that Rico turns chaotic. I could have stood an extra ten minutes for a well choreographed action scene.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Dredd is not the kind of guy to need or want backup. At least, that’s what he thinks. Turns out he needs a lot of help.

His boss and literal savior is Chief Justice Fargo. Fargo saved Dredd from the ash heap back in the day when all the other genetically engineered kiddos were being systematically murdered.

Chief Justice Fargo
Chief Justice Fargo

Fargo is a fair leader. He shuts down conversation about expanding the death penalty, and he retires from his position to save Dredd’s life.

Rob Schneider’s Fergee is a funny guy caught up in the situation. Dredd arrests him after the opening street fight, in which Fergee hid in a servo-droid to save his life. Hiding in a servo-droid is grounds for prison sentence, especially for a repeat offender. Dredd sends him to prison.

The two reunite on the flight there, sitting side by side. Fergee, on purpose or not, can’t stop repeating Dredd’s name. That gets Dredd into trouble on the plane, when another convict puts a knife to his throat; in the Cursed Earth, when the Christian cannibals recognize the name; and in the Academy, where judges recognize the name (though, unbelievably, not Dredd’s face).

Rob Schneider in the back there.
Rob Schneider in the back there.

Fergee almost dies in the Academy when the judges shoot at both of them, so I think he was just dumb. Couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

The final, and best sidekick is Judge Hershey. In her first year on the beat, she’s the judge who calls for backup in the opening and gets Dredd.

Hershey survives the encounter, though her partner-at-the-time does not. She spends some time getting to know her new partner, Dredd, trying to get under that helmet he never removes.

“No one is supposed to be alone all the time,” Hershey says to Dredd. She’s got friends, she argues. Dredd counters, telling her that’s rookie talk. Dredd had a friend once–Rico–but, “I judged him.”

Hershey fights for Dredd throughout the film. She agrees to defend him at his murder trial, and succeeds in getting the council to bar the prosecution’s key piece of evidence, a video showing Dredd executing the media figure tearing his name down on TV. Then, the prosecution busts out some top secret evidence that gets Dredd convicted. Hershey is haunted by the verdict. The “trial has been a farce,” she declares, but is ignored.

Hershey disappears from the movie for a while when Dredd’s out of town. She returns when Dredd and Fergee flee to her apartment, which is in tatters. “It doesn’t pay to be one of your friends,” Fergee says.

Hershey’s done some digging on her own. She’s discovered that Dredd’s family photo is a fake. Dredd explains about Janus, clones, Rico, and all that. He believes his DNA explains why he’s emotionless. “You did that to yourself,” Hershey says.

Let’s not forget that Hershey saves Dredd’s life in the end. She shoots Rico in the back, pushing him out of the Statue of Liberty. She’s tough, though green, and is loyal to Dredd.

These sidekicks were the movie’s strongest points. Stallone’s acting is…entertaining, but these three played well.

Henchmen (3/8)

Rico needs much help to get out of jail and get Janus up and running again.

His chief aid is Judge Griffin (Jürgen Prochnow), who starts the movie on the council of judges, but maneuvers to overthrow the chief justice and assume leadership.

Judge Griffin, bad dude. Wants execution for "lesser crimes."
Judge Griffin, bad dude. Wants execution for “lesser crimes.”

Griffin advocates stricter laws. He wants execution for crimes less serious than murder. He sets Rico loose on the streets to create chaos, to have “fear racing through every street.”

Griffin knows that Rico murdered the news anchor. He orchestrates the trial so that Dredd will be convicted and the chief justice will step down at the same time.

Judge Griffin’s got goals, and he hits ’em. Problem is, his final goal is Rico’s. Griffin needs council approval to reopen Janus files, and once that happens, all the judges become expendable, including Griffin.

Griffin is a man of conviction, though, who shoots himself in the arm to incriminate Dredd. He orders his underlings to murder any survivors of a plane crash. All this to create an ordered society. Can a lawful and ordered society be created by chaos? I think not, but Griffin does.

Also, check out this cool robot:robot

Stunts (0/6)

The stunt work is weak sauce in Judge Dredd. Consider the climactic fight between Dredd and Rico. Amongst this fight is intercut a fight between Hershey and Dr. Hayden. The women trade more blows than the men do.

That’s a problem because Rico and Dredd are the primary antagonists and have spent their lives training for combat and to oppose each other in this moment. Hayden, for all her passion, is a scientist who has spent years making clones.

A chase scene pits Dredd and Fergee outflying a phalanx of judges. The vehicles fly through a very fake Mega City One concrete canyon. Stallone bangs into another flying bike once. He leaps between the two and rescues Fergee from the malfunctioning original bike.

Watching this chase is like watching two people ride a Judge Dredd attraction at a theme park. Snooze-fest.

Climax (0/6)

After Dredd reunites with Hershey, they take Fergee with them to the Statue of Liberty, where a huge power surge a few years ago clues them in to the location of the restarted Janus program.

Rico has murdered the judges council, and Griffin goes to the statue to confront his underling. Rico’s bodyguard robot promptly rips his arms and legs off. We see blood stain the floor, but are spared the sight of dismemberment.

Dr. Hayden, who called Rico a petulant child after meeting him, now shows cleavage and a desire for the criminal genius. The change is left unexplained.

Dredd and company approach the outside, but are ambushed by the giant robot, which grabs Hershey’s neck. Rico nearly has the robot, which groans when it exerts energy, choke Hershey after Dredd shoots wildly at the thing.robot hershey

Inside the white clone room, Rico and Dredd have a tete-a-tete. Rico says the brothers are similar. “I am nothing like you,” Dredd chokes out. Nonsense. Dredd destroyed his life to embrace the law, “I destroyed the law to embrace life,” Rico says. He unveils the clones growing in pods with his DNA as a base.

These bodies are composed of white filament, and as Dredd sees them, one flicks open its cloudy, blue eyes. Creepy stuff. “What makes you think you can control these…things?” Dredd asks. Rico can’t answer well. But likely he doesn’t care. He wants chaos and freedom.

You're not. The Law. I am. The Law.
You’re not. The Law. I am. The Law.

The robot enters the room, still clutching Hershey by the neck. It punches its master. Chaos breaks. Fergee emerges from behind the robot, his hacking skills put to good use. They deactivate the robot for good.

Hershey fights Hayden and Dredd fights Rico. I mentioned before that the women fight harder and longer than the men, which, again, is only a problem because they are the supporting characters here. Hayden calls Hershey a bitch. Hershey corrects her, “Judge Bitch,” in the movie’s best line.

While this is going on, Rico orders the clone pods opened, despite their being 60% complete. Scary ghost-people emerge from glass caskets. Most of the fighting with the clones did not make the final cut. The movie suffers for this. Instead we see several pods explode sparks.

These creepy clones were the movie's coolest part.
These creepy clones were the movie’s coolest part.

Rico runs to Liberty’s crown, from which he tries to escape on a flying bike. Dredd catches him and throws him off. Zoom far back from the crown as the two trade blows. Rico kicks Dredd to the edge and over it. Dredd finds a convenient bar to grip as he dangles over the city.

Rico picks up a Lawgiver and begins sentencing Dredd. For the charge of being human, “when we could have been gods, I sentence you guilty.”

One problem, the gun’s out of standard rounds. Dredd lunges upward, grips the handle and says “signal flare.” Dredd fires the flare behind Rico, enough to distract him and yank him over the edge. Rico falls to his death. Dredd ain’t done. “Court’s adjourned,” he says. Hey-yo!

Doc Hayden appears with a rifle, ready to kill Dredd. Hershey appears and shoots the doctor through the back. “That’s three times now,” Hershey says, keeping score of all the times she’s helped Dredd.

This Statue of Liberty has been pacified.

The judges need a new council and chief justice. Dredd is offered the position. He declines. “I am a street judge,” he says, “and I’m very late for work.” He dons his garb of justice and returns to work. No days off for Dredd. Hershey kisses him, and the judges cheer him. Make safe the city, Judge Dredd.

Everything turned out great, except the action was lame. Rico and Dredd hardly fight, as if such things were not covered in the actors’ contracts. The clones and their skills are withheld from us. The antique robot is felled by hacking, and not the mass of guns displayed in nearly every scene.

Jokes (2/4)

Stallone gets a bad rap for his portrayal of Judge Dredd. He “earned” a Razzie award (one of two for him that year). Yes, his performance is flat, but that’s the point. Dredd was bred to have no emotions in his head.

Dredd’s speech patterns and convictions are funny when they aren’t sad. “This room has been pacified,” is something a robot would say after killing a half dozen people. Dredd isn’t a robot, but neither was he born nor conceived. He’s in between.

Every moment Assante is on screen provides humor, most of it unintentional.

Schneider is on board to provide the comedy. And he’s good. He does a killer Stallone impression to Stallone’s face. “I am the law,” Fergee intones on the prison ship. That took guts, because Stallone doesn’t seem like a guy who can laugh at himself.

Fergee begs the family of cannibals to not eat him because “I’ve had gonorrhea.” They don’t care.

I think this character was named Meanie. The metal protruding from his forehead is a dial that alters his emotional state.
I think this character was named Meanie. The metal protruding from his forehead is a dial that alters his emotional state.

Fergee fulfills the bumbling sidekick role. A hacker by trade, he’s released from prison, arrested, and sent back to prison, only to escape the ship flying him there, throughout the course of the movie. It’s a big arc for Fergee, but this is a Stallone movie.

The movie’s biggest joke occurs when Dredd infiltrates the hall of justice or whatever it’s called. Dredd flees dozens of other judges and never gets shot. These guys are trained constantly in all manner of weapons to hit everything, and they can’t hit Dredd. Bad guys shooting poorly is the most overused trope in action movies, but in Judge Dredd‘s case it seemed especially bad. The judges were good guys.

Setting (1/4)

Mega City One is where Judge Dredd and company dish out justice on the streets, where throngs of humans walk beneath endless landscapes of skyscrapers.

Mega City One is most likely old New York City. It falls in the right spot on the map, and it’s got the Statue of Liberty. The entire agglomeration is surrounded by a wall, separating the living world from the Cursed Earth desert that covers most of the continent.

The city is a bleak place. Fergee takes a cab ride through it at the beginning, his flying yellow taxi rising and falling amongst the skyscrapers like a fish floating in a busy aquarium.

Mega City One, Blade Runner Zero?
Mega City One, Blade Runner Zero?

The city houses 65 million people, which sounds insane, but Tokyo’s metropolitan area is already halfway there. That city doesn’t come close to the crime levels the judges deal with each day.

Judge Dredd spends its time in large chambers. Blue and gold are motivic colors. The Academy is a multi-story tower in the shape of an eagle. It’s symbolism about as blunt as a Stallone-delivered sentence. Eagles are all over the Academy.

Many of the sets appear built, not natural sites, but they are well made. Everything looks dirty and grimy. We can’t tell what color the sky is.

The Janus project is housed inside the Statue of Liberty. The clone room is a marvel of whiteness, possibly the only clean spot in Mega City.

Commentary (1/2)

Judge Dredd is a movie based on a comic book. Dozens of Judge Dredd comics flip through during the opening credits, to ensure you get the point. It’s hard to take a movie’s message seriously after this silly introduction.

James Earl Jones narrates the opening text. Plenty to unpack there. James Earl Jones isn’t in the movie, and there’s no reason to narrate onscreen text. Judge Dredd shows no shame.

In the third millennium, “the world changed.” Pollution and such has ruined North America, and most of its citizens exist in a few mega cities.

Bad news for future humanity. The world creates cops that are extra trained. Imbued with judicial powers, these cops, called judges, can arrest, try, sentence, and punish a criminal in the field in few seconds.

Judging is Dredd’s favorite activity, and you better not see him in your neighborhood. Riots tear apart the city, but the judges are always a few minutes away.

In a modern culture awash in lawyers, it’s hard to imagine a future without them. It’s harder to imagine lawyers as buff and as principled as Dredd.

The movie also shows us what co-ed locker rooms will look like in the future.

However, some ideas are strange and far off base. Judge Dredd envisions a future in which some technologies do not advance. Large TVs stick out in the streets, broadcasting traditional news reports. This in a world where ads are holographic projections. And the quality of the home video incriminating Dredd is worse than video quality in 1995 when the movie was made.

Clones can be grown in eight hours, but TVs will still require a table to sit on. Something’s not adding up.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

In a clustered city of 65 million people, those in power and those on the streets are all white. Mega City One sits, coincidentally I’m sure, where old New York City once welcomed the world’s huddled masses. Perhaps the town endured ethnic purges in the 21st century we didn’t hear about?

Others

  • I enjoyed the Council of Judges. They were always up in arms about something and eager to make the exact wrong decision.
  • Judge Dredd was an odd movie for product placement. Companies like the idea of appearing to exist in the near future (consider all the products the McFlys consume in 2015 in Back to the Future Part II). A robot sells Coors. Strangest of all, a judge flying a bike crashes into a store selling Wild Turkey.
  • How dumb were these judges to create a program called “Janus” and think everything would go well? Janus is two-faced.

Summary (14/68): 21%

Judge Dredd is remembered as a disastrous film. Make no mistake, it’s bad. The lead actors might be insane, possibly a fault of the director and possibly not. You never know kind of Stallone will be on your set.

But it’s not terrible! At 96 minutes, it never drags. The costumes and sets are fun to look at (and mock, if you wish). Diane Lane’s good, Schneider is fine, and you got the Grim Reaper in there.

Judge Dredd is worth a watch with friends and some beers for drinking games.