Judge Dredd (1995) created a wonderful visual aesthetic straight off the bat when it was released in cinemas. Alan Silvestri’s bombastic orchestral soundtrack thundered over an opening fade-in montage of classic 2000AD covers, effortlessly slipping into a flip-book comic style reveal of the titular hero’s logo. This was as metal as Judge Death himself moshing out to Manowar, and throwing devil horns with both hands. But hang on, where have we seen this kind of comic-book flip page thing before?
That’s right, true believers – in every Marvel film since Ang Lee’s The Incredible Hulk. Does that mean that the infamous opening intro for Marvel Studios was ripped off originally from Danny Cannon’s 1995 film? Possibly. Possibly not. But this reviewer would like to think so. One could argue that Judge Dredd was a trend-setter, even way back when. Perhaps that’s giving the film a little too much credit, but bear with me, guys. There’s some criticisms down the line, so I’m trying to get all the lovely stuff crammed into your brains before we get into any of that.
“With an eclectic powerhouse cast, bolstered by an incredibly 90’s soundtrack […] it seemed that the Judge Dredd film would have been a sure-fire hit- But…”
The first voice we hear in Judge Dredd belongs to James Earl Jones. His deep baritone drawl reading the words that crawl up the screen like a powerful jaguar about to go on a hunt. He describes the future post-apocalyptic world in which most of the Earth is a wasteland, and humans huddle in cramped, violent megacities. This isn’t exposition dumping, no sir! This is simply setting the viewer up for the majestic sights we were about to behold. And what better way to introduce the audience into this world than by having Darth Vader himself tell us all about it? If that hasn’t got you psyched up already, then I’m afraid there’s something terribly wrong with you, dear reader. And at the heart of it, that’s what Judge Dredd is all about.
ABC Warrior Hammerstein! The Cursed Earth! The Angel Gang! Rico! The ’95 movie drew more perceptively on the comic’s abundant history than in any other iteration to date. From undead Dark Judges to Soviet assassin Orlok to face-changing serial killer PJ Maybe, there is just so much imaginative and complex villains that the film could take from. There were some fantastic ideas for the film, incorporating the lavish style of the comics, using the work from talented artists and writers who became renowned in the field internationally including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, John Wagner, Alan Grant and Garth Ennis.
After the crawl, we’re introduced to Mega City One – a cross between the dilapidated Ridley Scott Blade Runner (1982) aesthetic and Paul Verhoeven’s colourful Total Recall (1990) palette, with buildings towering into the clouds and cyberpunk gangs block-warring in the streets. I would have loved to have seen the conceptual artwork for this film, taking everything from the source material of the creation of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra in 1977 about the unrelenting future cop and max it out to eleven. With an eclectic powerhouse cast, bolstered by an incredibly 90’s soundtrack that included The Cure, White Zombie, Left Field. and The The, it seemed that the Judge Dredd film would have been a sure-fire hit- But…
“But”. That insidious three-letter word capable of toppling even the most fastidious and gluttonous off their belliwheel. I hate to admit it, but the 1995 Judge Dredd is not a good movie. Gravely undermined by pungent dialogue, strained attempts at comedy and creative differences between the main star and the director, it was inevitable that Judge Dredd would not be a summer blockbuster smash. With hindsight, it’s easy now to scoff at Stallone’s version compared to Karl Urban’s interpretation of the future lawman in the 2012 Dredd film, a much grittier and more grown-up version, nailing the character of Dredd himself. But there is so much that the 1995 version got RIGHT in light of this.
“…the original cut was rated X and had to be re-cut and resubmitted to the MPAA multiple times before they could settle on the PG-13 version.”
With over twenty-five years to cycle through cartoonish early adaptations of beloved franchises, to the bleak and dreary versions we see today, maybe Judge Dredd got more things right than you care to remember? We also have to think about the timing here, people. Remember, that back in the 90’s, filmmakers didn’t really know how to tackle comic book adaptations. This was well before the onslaught of Marvel and DC titles, cross-over films, spin-off franchises and the like. Studios were less inclined to gamble their money-making these types of films.
Coming off the success of 1993’s Demolition Man, perhaps Stallone was looking for an enjoyable sci-fi action romp in the same vein. In later interviews, Sylvester Stallone said he felt the film was supposed to be a comedy/action film and according to an interview with writer Steven E. de Souza for the Den Of Geek web site in December 2013, the original cut was rated X and had to be re-cut and resubmitted to the MPAA multiple times before they could settle on the PG-13 version, going against the director’s original vision. Deleted scenes involving the ABC Warrior robot killing Judge Griffin by ripping his arms and legs off while Griffin screams and another where Dredd fights (and shoots) clone Judges during the ending, to name but just a few.
It would be interesting to see what Judge Dredd could have done with refined CGI. The practical effects were impressive even back then, and you could tell that hundreds of set designers were likely working overtime to get the feel exactly right. There’s atmosphere within these effects that still resonates today – the ABC warrior, for example, was a great practical effects achievement and the sets, ludicrous costumes by Gianni Versace and vehicles were fantastic. Was it all a bit OTT? Absolutely- But….
Judge Dredd tried to encapsulate the sheer breath-taking splendour of Mega City One. The farcically tyrannical state with faceless judges that we eerily see ourselves creeping slowly towards day after day. The crazed overpopulation causing gangs to roam the streets to earn their scraps and morsels. The abundance of neon fizzing in the rain. The overall finished project may have seemed lopsided and too cartoonish, with Stallone trying his damned hardest to get a 90’s catchphrase to stick throughout proceedings – ‘I’d knew you’d say that.’
“The practical effects were impressive even back then, and you could tell that hundreds of set designers were likely working overtime to get the feel exactly right.”
There are moments scattered throughout that try to emulate the 2000AD world and succeed in doing so. The opening segment, in which returning citizen Fergie (played by relative newcomer, at the time, Rob Schneider) descends from a soaring Fritz Lang style metropolis to the dark underbelly of the sober and coarse block tenements was an impressive introduction to the world of Judge Dredd.
Even the Block-War introduction to ‘ol stony face himself is a spectacle, allowing the viewer (who may not be aware of the comics) to gradually absorb the world of The Judges, and to find out about the toys on offer like the Lawgiver gun and the Lawmaster bikes. At the start there’s even some of the black humour that you’d find in the comics: Judge Dredd and his partner Judge Hershey (played by Diane Lane) respond to a skirmish battle happening at one of the tenement blocks. After ‘judging’ several perps, Dredd arrests Fergie for hiding in a servo-droid to escape the ensuing gunfire.
“But I’d only been in there five minutes!” Fergie cries. “You could have jumped out of the window,” Dredd drawls. “Forty floors up? That would be suicide!” protests Fergie. “Maybe…but it’s legal,” replies Dredd, deadpan. It’s such a great setup to the world, and something that could have come straight out of the pages of Rebellion’s 2000AD comic. Unfortunately, everything spirals a little out of control when Stallone does the unthinkable. The unimaginable! He… takes off the helmet.
A character who has forever remained facially anonymous to represent the oppression and almost totalitarian nature of the law, Dredd now has a face and weird azure blue contact lenses. This was clearly a move to ensure that the star power of its lead actor was a factor in drawing in audiences to the cinema, but it somehow takes something away from the source material to satisfy ego. Don’t get me wrong, Stallone was the absolute perfect choice for Dredd at the time, despite the yelling and clunky dialogue, he looked the part but this wasn’t the Dredd fans from the comic book came to see.
“The 1995 movie got Dredd wrong, but everything else right.“
Dredd himself is convicted of the murder of a TV newsman, tracing his DNA to the imprinted guns of the future. Dredd is shipped to Aspen Prison Colony and the unraveling mystery of the real killer is brought to a head when we learn from one of the Senior Judges (Max Von Sydow) that Dredd was cloned, and has an identical brother (played by Armand Assante) who could have supplied the same DNA to the gun that killed the reporter. From here, we follow some standard action tropes – Dredd escapes from the shuttle escorting him to prison when it’s short down by the Angel Gang in the cursed Earth. Dredd and Fergie team up and make their way back to Mega City One to have a final confrontation with Rico, Dredd’s cloned brother. It’s all very 90’s action film orientated and, unfortunately, the female leads are not given much material to do anything with their characters, either. Hershey and Dredd kiss at the end of the film too, which left more than a few fans of the source material spluttering into their popcorn buckets.
With an upcoming TV show in the works (Judge Dredd: Mega City One) cited as a Hill Street Blues but set in the world of Dredd, it would be truly something to see if the worlds of the ’95 Judge Dredd and 2012’s Dredd could be fused together. Ultimately, the 2012 movie got Dredd himself right, and Mega City One wrong. The 1995 movie got Dredd wrong, but everything else right. It would be a double whammy indeed if the new TV show drew on both to become the ultimate in entertainment enforcement. We can but wait, true believers. We can but wait.
What did you think of Judge Dredd (1995)? Were you one of the angry comic book fans screaming ‘What The Drokk?!’ in the theatre, or do you instead have fond memories of the action sci-fi adaptation because it reminds you of the first time your parents let you leave the house unattended to walk to the corner ice cream shop/video rental store to pick out whatever movie you wanted to watch while you ate a double-scoop cone on a hot summer day. (Editor’s Note: that might just be me, but either way-) Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!