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ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Judge Dredd’ (1995), Part One

Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome back to our grand tour of the ’90s superhero movies. This week, we’re starting in on 1995′s Judge Dredd, and I am not looking forward to what we’re about to see.

Matt Wilson: Don’t let Stallone hear that! He’ll send his expendable team of aging action stars after us! You’ll get a Dolph Lundgren to the teeth!Chris: That actually sounds way more pleasant and marginally less mystifying than watching this one again. See, Judge Dredd isn’t just a bad movie, it’s also kind of impossible to get your head around. I was having a conversation about this movie with my writing partner, Chad Bowers, the other day, and we were just trying to figure out how it all went wrong.

Matt: Let us count the ways! Maybe it was the director, Danny Cannon, being the eighth or ninth choice on the producers’ list and his subsequent battles with Stallone. Maybe it was that this movie was rushed, even to the point where it was released with an R rating even though the studio wanted it to be PG-13. Maybe it was Stallone himself, who never had heard of the character before he was cast and pulled too much bank to actually play the character as he was in the comics. He takes off that helmet every chance he can get.

Chris: Oh yeah, there are plenty of reasons, but in theory, it sounds like exactly the kind of Judge Dredd movie that should’ve been made. Cannon was a long-time fan of the comic (he won a contest in 1987 to design a Judge Dredd film poster in the pages of 2000 AD), and visually, they could not have gotten closer to the source material. For all that they hyped the Versace costume designs, they’re really just the designs from the comics made real. When he has the helmet on, Stallone looks just like Dredd, and as Chad pointed out, they even built a Lawmaster! I think it could’ve worked, but man, does it go off the rails early and often.

Matt: It’s awfully early to bring this into it, but it’s basically a prototype for what the Watchmen movie was. This movie nails the look — I agree, Stallone looks just like Dredd, but that’s all he gets right — and whiffs it when it comes to everything else. Also, a side note: IMDb says Stallone was “too expensive” for the producers to let him play the character with the mask on. I initially read that as “too expressive” and laughed and laughed.

Chris: Yeah, he’s really, genuinely terrible in this movie for a variety of reasons, and ditching the helmet – a mistake they didn’t repeat in the recent Karl Urban pitcture, which I quite liked – is a big part of it. Part of me wonders if Cannon might’ve been too much of a fan, too, considering how much he tries to cram into 90 minutes. There’s Mega City stuff, Cursed Earth stuff, mutants, robots, clones… It stops just short of adding in Judge Death, but I would not have been surprised if he showed up. He’s in the SNES game, after all.

Matt: Cannon has actually gone on to do a lot of TV stuff, which seems to better fit that urge to tell those kinds of stories. And, to be fair, he shows off some real technical prowess in this movie. It’s encouraging this movie didn’t end his career. It did, however, cause him to vow never to work with Stallone-caliber stars ever again. Cannon claimed the final movie was totally different from the script because of Sly’s demands.

Chris: That’s not surprising. This movie seems like a bad experience for everyone involved, including the folks at 2000 AD. This was a huge chance to introduce their most popular character to the US audience, and it tanked pretty hard. The one good thing about it was that Judge Dredd comics got a bigger foothold in the American market, but I have to imagine that the amount of people turned off by the movie outweighed the new fans.

Matt: The morbidly curious and/or masochistic segment of the population is a sadly small one. But we’re part of that elite group. So let’s start the movie, shall we?

Chris: I think it’s fair to say that we get one of the biggest problems with this movie right at the front. Seriously, whose bright idea was it to open on Rob Schneider?

Matt: Probably whoever’s idea it was to cast him. We should say that his appearance comes after a title card accompanied by comics covers and some overdramatic voiceover narration from James Earl Jones. So Schnieder’s appearance is even more of a WTF moment.

Chris: Yeah. It’s very clear that Schneider’s meant to be a viewpoint character to introduce us to this crazy sci-fi world, but we already got the crawl that sets everything up. He’s unnecessary even before he’s on the screen, and he’s only going to get worse.

Matt: The only thing he succeeds in reassuring me of as he jumps into the flying taxi that takes him to his new home is that the future remains safe for cargo shorts.

Chris: Schneider is an ex-con who has just been released back into Mega City One and given his housing assignment in one of the massive lower-city apartment blocks. Unfortunately for him, the blocks are full of warring gangs that are firing rockets at each other, and unfortunately for us, he doesn’t take a bullet to the head immediately. He’s here for the long haul, folks.

Matt: There’s a pretty long sequence of him gawking in wonder at the city as he’s taken to the slums and, like I said, the technical showcase is pretty good. These effects hold up fairly well. And even after he lands in the middle of a riot, the world seems pretty well-developed. It’s just the characters and events that will be big problems.

Chris: After a couple of alleged wisecracks, none of which are even one tenth as funny as executive producer Andrew Vajna’s last name, Schneider wanders into a roomful of gang members. Meanwhile, two Judges, Hershey and Expendable, arrive on the scene to calm the riot. They need backup, as the Judges are only 33% as effective as a Texas Ranger.

Matt: “Expendable” is a made-up name, but they quite literally say they’re at the corner of “Abbott and Costello” when they call in for backup. Any reasonable viewer, after hearing that and seeing Rob Schnieder’s face before anyone else’s, should be assuming this is some kind of secret sequel to Schnieder’s prison movie, Big Stan. There are tone problems, is my point.

Chris: But the thing is, “the corner of Abbot and Costello” actually is something that would fit into the comics. The elevation of pop culture stuff is an element of Judge Dredd‘s satire – Dredd himself lives in Rowdy Yates block – so again, you’d think it’d be a good thing that they put that stuff in the movie. The problem is that the rest of the film doesn’t really give any context, so it just comes off as a weird screwball gag in this scene where people are being murdered left and right. Stallone sure as hell doesn’t act like he’s in a satire of anything other than his own career.

Matt: I guess it’s just a matter of subtlety. Every attempt at satire is just too in-your-face. There’s a robot that’s advertising for “recycled food” that hits something that’s pretty close to the right notes for satire, but even it feels like it’s out of Spaceballs. “Rowdy Yates” isn’t a super-obscure reference, but “Abbott and Costello” is one of the first things you’d consider when you’re MadLibbing NOUN and NOUN.

Chris: Oh, yeah. I mean, please do not get the idea that I am defending this movie’s script. I just wanted to point out that there was a point in the development where someone was at least trying to get the tone right. Anyway, while we’ve been debating all of this, Hershey and Judge Redshirt’s backup has shown up in the form of Judge Dredd, and to his credit, he looks exactly like he stepped out of the comic. For one brief moment before he opens his mouth, it’s pretty cool, and then Stallone mumble-shouts “I AM THE LAW” as his very first line.

Matt: He tells everyone on the block they’re under arrest and they just keep shooting. Then he delivers a speech to Hershey about how the bullets people are firing at him aren’t lethal because they’re firing them from too far away. They look like they’re hitting the pavement pretty hard to me, pal.

Chris: Dredd is a weird character to pin down in terms of how to play him, because he’s such a cold, hard-ass fascist. Stallone’s version, on the other hand, is this weird series of catchphrases (“THIS ROOM HAS BEEN PACIFIED” is coming up in a second) that alternates between the Terminator and just a know-it-all prick.

Matt: He basically plays him as a robot, yeah. In lots of ways, this film feels like a neutered RoboCop movie where the guns make some of the most obnoxious sound effects in movie history.

Chris: Much to everyone’s surprise, Judge Don’t Get Too Comfortable gets shot and killed, and then Dredd kills all the bad guys with his voice-controlled pistol. We also find out that Judges’ pistols, or Lawgivers, are keyed to their DNA, in a brief scene that should have had the words “PLOT POINT” flashing in giant letters. One last criminal remains, so Dredd reads him his list of offenses and then shoots him in the head so that he can deliver yet another catchphrase. Court is adjourned.

Matt: As they clean up the scene, Dredd appears to blow a circuit and try to arrest that servo droid that was selling recycled food. Turns out Rob Schneider is in there, and Dredd sends him back to prison for five years for tampering with the droid. Well, OK then! Short story arc for him.

Chris: I’m glad that’s the last we’ll be seeing of Rob Schneider. I’ll try to remember him this way: covered in spaghetti and being halfheartedly defended by Diane Lane.

Matt: Chief Justice (not Judge, for some reason) Fargo (Max Von Sydow of all people) is meeting with his council of advisors, discussing how out-of-hand crime has gotten in Mega City One. This is less a meeting than a group of people just saying numbers for a while.

Chris: You’ve already made the comparison to RoboCop, but it really is just one guy saying “Mega City One has a cancer, and that cancer is crime!” away from being a truly shameless riff at this point. Dredd wanders in and watches a disapproving newscast for a moment before Fargo calls him into the office for a chat, and we get a huge shot of Stallone taking the helmet off.

Chris: The way it’s shot is insane, too. I get that Dredd taking his helmet off is a pretty big deal, since he never, ever, ever does that in the comics, but the way the music swells and the way Stallone is lit, with his face in shadows until he raises it up to give the camera a look at those baby blues, treats it like it’s a big reveal. We already know it’s Stallone, guys. You put his picture on the poster. He was in Rocky. We’ve seen him before.

Matt: This scene and the previous one, where Von Sydow and Jurgen Prochnow get into an argument of Actors Who You’d Think Could Do Better, basically establish that Fargo is a bit of a soft-hearted fellow. He doesn’t necessarily approve of Dredd’s recent murders, so he knocks him down to the academy two days a week to teach ethics. I get he’s trying to teach Dredd a lesson, but really that seems more like a strategy to end up with some especially trigger-happy cadets.

Chris: I kind of wish that had been the plot of the movie, and we ended up with Judge Dredd in front of a crowd of Judge Teens going “I came here to teach you… but you ended up… teaching me.” Wouldn’t have been worse than what we got.

Matt: “I’ll Stand and Deliver…JUSTICE!”

Chris: At the very least, we should’ve gotten a scene of Dredd putting together lesson plans. Instead, we go back to the Aspen Prison – apparently the only jail in the world – where the warden has gone in to talk to Rico, played by Armand Asante. Spoiler Warning! He’s Dredd’s clone! This is a great twist because they only sort of look alike.

Matt: And instead of having a booming, deep voice, Assante’s speaks like he’s Ray Liotta playing Cobra Commander.

Chris: To be fair, another thing Chad pointed out in our conversation that’s in this movie’s favor: Asante actually does kind of look like an unfinished Sly clone.

Matt: Or maybe Sly would be the unfinished clone of him; Assante’s got an entire mouth. Anyway, the warden delivers a package from a “mysterious benefactor,” which is a judge badge, a picture of the reporter who disapproved of Dredd’s killing and a gun all in one thing. Rico uses it to violently and somewhat over-complicatedly break out.

Chris: The fact that the Warden is compelled to deliver this package by hand to a prisoner so dangerous that he keeps a bunch of automated machine guns pointed at him is a pretty huge plot hole, but the warden does mention that they have the same mysterious “benefactor.” Which then goes back to raising the question of why he keeps all those guns leveled at him at all times. This movie’s not great with logic.

Matt: Example: Rico shoots the warden through the throat not to kill him but so that the voice recognition device that identifies the warden won’t recognize him anymore, and those guns will kill him. That seems like way too many steps in this process.

Chris: I guess that’s to lure in the guards so that he can get out when they leave the door unlocked?

Matt: Maybe so. We’ve officially thought about the logic of this scene 400 percent too much. So on to the next one, where Dredd is teaching academy cadets about high-pitched guns rather than ethics.

Chris: That’s right: He shows off the guns, armor, and flying motorcycles that await them once they complete their Judge training (and also the horrible deaths at the hands of cyborg future-criminals) before taking a moment to talk about the Lord.

Chris: Sorry, the Law. Do you think the law book looking like the Bible was meant to be a subtle metaphor, or…?

Matt: The Torah is often referred to as the Written Law. Maybe Stallone converted.

Chris: Hershey eavesdrops on the lesson and then catches up with Dredd in what might be the least sexy locker room scene in cinema history. They have a little conversation about whether it’s possible for Judges to have friends, and Dredd admits that he had one once. Hershey asks what happened and Dredd, who said about ten minutes ago that emotions should be outlawed, chokes out “I judged him” and sounds like he’s on the verge of tears.

Matt: It’s so hard to take “judged” out of its actual, conversational meaning here. It sounds like Dredd just got too mad at his roommate for eating too much of the peanut butter.

Chris: “I had a friend once.” “What happened?” “He liked Nickelback.”

Matt: The lighting in this scene is distracting as hell, too. It’s like that locker room was built to very pointedly highlight Stallone’s baby blues.

Chris: For good reason. Say what you want, but when it comes time to list our High Points, I’m definitely putting Stallone’s eyes on there. Anyway, said friend is, of course, Rico, who is wandering around Mega City taking in the sights and producing a truly bizarre amount of sweat from his face before heading into a pawn shop and chatting up the cockney pawnbroker.

Matt: I talked up Cannon’s technical abilities earlier, but the guy also has a real tendency to wear his influences on his sleeve. This street set might as well have been a leftover from Blade Runner. And I swear I keep getting a Spaceballs vibe from little bits here and there. Maybe the prison guards?

Chris: It’s the helmets. Rico and the pawnbroker make a big show of getting Hammerstein from 2000 AD‘s ABC Warriors strip a truly unnecessary cameo, then pops open a box to reveal a full Judge’s uniform and Lawgiver. But what’s this?! Unlike those other crooks, Rico can pick up and shoot the Lawgiver just fine! (Because he’s Dredd’s clone.)

Matt: We say so long to Cockney Pawnbroker (we hardly knew ye) and Rico fires up Hammerstein so they can “go to war.” This after the pawnbroker explicitly stated the warriors have to be “non-functioning.” “Non-functioning” does not mean, “stick your hand in there and it magically works.”

Chris: Their first target: The angry reporter we saw earlier, played by character actor Mitch Ryan. You may remember him from such films as Lethal Weapon and Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story.

Matt: Rico opts for the “walk in the front door and shoot” method of assassination, but he’s wearing Dredd’s uniform and his badge. It’s all over pretty quick.

Chris: He does linger long enough for Mitch Ryan’s “Dredd!” and the sight of Dredd’s badge to be captured on a security camera, though.

Matt: Meanwhile, Dredd and Hershey are making great use of their time, as riots are breaking out everywhere, harassing jerks for parking violations and a suspended license.

Chris: It’s weird that jerks in 2139 look exactly like jerks from 1995, complete with slicked-back hair and collarless dress shirts, isn’t it? Anyway, Dredd blows up his car with a grenade. It’s supposed to be… endearing?

Matt: To be honest, a version of this movie that went full satire, where Dredd and the other judges were just way too hard on perpetrators of minor crimes, would have been GREAT.

Chris: Yeah, but again, the tone is all over the map. As Dredd neatly solves the problem of a parking violation by leaving a flaming pile of wreckage in the street, a bunch of black-suited Master Chiefs show up and arrest him for murder. But didn’t this movie just spend the last 30 minutes, including the scene directly before this one, showing us a legal system that works entirely on Judges? Shouldn’t a Judge just show up and sentence Dredd on the spot for his crimes? That’s how this entire premise works, isn’t it?

Matt: I guess there’s a separate legal system for Judges? Like, they have to answer to the council as some sort of internal investigations division. Why am I trying to figure this out? Dredd’s in a holding cell when Fargo comes in, insisting the council has undeniable proof of the murder and there’ll be a tribunal. But Fargo, that old softy, says he knows Dredd is innocent because he looked into his eyes. Those eyes.

Chris: Those beautiful, sleepy eyes.

Matt: Dredd reveals that Hershey will defend him at the tribunal, even though she’s a street judge. Judges are attorneys, too! If there had been sequels, we would have found out they’re notary publics, can perform weddings and will spay your pets.

Chris: If there has ever been a 2000 AD prog about Judges running around performing weddings, I want to know so that I can buy it immediately. I want Dredd to just kick in the door on two rival gang members, declare them to be married, and leave.

Matt: “Prepare to be…WED!”

Chris: Judge Wedd.

Matt: We could do this all night, folks. At the tribunal, the council is watching the video of that reporter die just a few too many times before one of the justices makes it stop. Also: There’s a really close shot of Dredd’s badge. Was there a second unit in that apartment? Hershey insists the video can’t be admitted as evidence because a smug kid from the academy said the video was too “low definition.” Dredd is saved by a Blu-ray snob.

Chris: That might be the most ridiculous thing about this movie thus far: That Judge Hershey’s expert witness is a junior at the academy. Is that the only expert on video that she could find in a city of 65 million people?

Matt: Kids and their technology, man. Of course, the prosecutor has another trick up her sleeve: A really complicated tech demo that basically says Dredd fired the gun because it identified his DNA.

Chris: And just like that, we have a new most ridiculous thing thus far. If they have incontrovertible DNA evidence on EVERY SINGLE BULLET, then why are they even bothering with the video? Hell, why even bother with the trial? And why are Hershey and Dredd, two Judges who presumably know how their guns work, not aware of this at all?

Matt: They are totally caught off guard, to the point where Dredd screams out, “IT’S A LIE!” in a way only Stallone can as soon as the computer voice says his name. At the very least he should have seen this coming when the prosecutor brought the whole issue up, right?

Matt: “THE EBIDENCE HAS BEED FOSSIFIED!” It is one of the all-time great Stallone Freakouts. I think maybe they wouldn’t have treated Dredd like a raving, murderous sociopath if his line of defense hadn’t been screaming “I AM THE LAW!” in the middle of court, but that’s just me. Either way, there’s no getting around it: Dredd is doomed. Unless, of course, Judge Fargo retires, because the Judicial System allows him to have one special last request and dedication before he heads out into the Cursed Earth, because hey, why not?

Matt: So this movie that started with Rob Schneider basically mugging directly at the camera and “Abbott and Costello” is EXTREMELY DEADLY SERIOUS about this tribunal and codenames like “Lazarus” and “The Janus Project.”

Chris: Not to mention sending Max Von Sydow out to die in a nuclear wasteland and dramatically tearing “all his garb of justice” off of Sylvester Stallone.

Matt: The music, the acting, the shot of the badge hitting the floor, the victory arch of guns as Fargo goes out for his death-walk. It’s all just so…so much.

Chris: It’s beyond super-serious, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like that big pompous “Let the betrayer of the law be taken from our court!” stuff. But while this might seem like the end, Hershey is not letting it go. She sneaks into the locker room and busts open Dredd’s locker, which seems to be where he keeps any and all personal items that he owns, including family photographs.

Matt: It’s like he doesn’t have a house. She finds a baby picture and literally says “Baby Dredd?” which is what anyone in the audience would say, too. It’s pretty damn funny. Then she finds a picture of Dredd and Rico, which makes her eyebrows arch like crazy.

Chris: I honestly can’t decide if Hershey’s mind being so boggled by a photo of Dredd shaking hands with a friend is too far of a dumb leap to conclusions and I hate it, or if it’s actually pretty great that she’d be that shocked to find evidence that he smiled once and I love it.

Matt: Rico, on the other hand, is all smiles, as he and Hammerstein meet with Judge Griffin (That’s right. Jurgen Prochnow, accent and all, is playing a guy named “Griffin.”) in his office. Armand Assante has no accent, but I have just as much trouble making out what he’s saying as Prochnow. They’re conspiring to take over the council. That much I picked up.

Chris: Assante must’ve been on set taking notes during the trial scene, because when it comes time for his flipout, he makes a run at going even bigger than Stallone. “YOU WANNA NEW BEGINNING?! I AM THENEWBEGINNIN!!

Matt: So the chief justice has gone out into the wasteland, Dredd’s in jail, Rob Schneider hasn’t appeared for about half an hour, and Rico and Griffin have everything just where they want it. How much more dire (except for the lack of Rob Schneider) can things get in Judge Dredd‘s second half? Will we be able to make out anything anyone says by the end? Find out next week!

ComicsAlliance vs. the ’90s:

The Rocketeer (1991), Part One
The Rocketeer (1991), Part Two

The Mask (1994), Part One
The Mask (1994), Part Two

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