Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). For this spin on the Rack, we’ll be looking at the first big-screen adaptation of Britain’s most popular comic character: Judge Dredd!
Satire is a squirrelly literary form to work with.
Generally, the point of a satire is to draw attention to societal shortcomings or failures through exaggeration, parody, and irony—to blow up the faults of your target to such an extreme degree that they become ridiculous, and clearer to see. Usually, this is done for comedic effect… but it doesn’t have to be funny, as long as it gets you to think about the subjects being tackled. Irish satirist Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay A Modest Proposal, for instance, famously mocked the cold and heartless attitudes of the affluent British towards the impoverished Irish—suggesting that Irish families could ease their economic burdens by selling their children as food to wealthy Englishmen and -women. He suggests a number of ways to prepare children as a meal for the best flavor, and calculates the financial gains to be reaped—ultimately concluding it to be the most sensible method to relieve poverty (after which he names a number of far more sane suggestions, such as buying local goods and exercising leniency on rent enforcement, with a nudge-nudge wink-wink “these couldn’t POSSIBLY work!” attitude). Satire can spark discussion and effectively reframe conflicts in illuminating ways; it can be a powerful tool, in the right hands!1
… But satire has its drawbacks. For instance, what happens when a satirical work isn’t recognized as satire? What happens when the audience’s values and worldview are so far afield from those of the author that they take the work’s hyperbole at face value—seeing the absurd distortion as a sincere suggestion? And what if… what if the people who didn’t see the joke were tasked with adapting the work into a whole new medium?
Well, that’s how you end up with films like Judge Dredd.
Judge Dredd is a British comic book character, created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra (with input from editor Pat Mills) for the comic book 2000 A.D. in 1977. Not exactly a superhero, Dredd is a riff on the “rugged loner cop” archetype (think Dirty Harry), but taken to its logical extreme: in the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Mega City One, Joseph Dredd is a “street Judge”—a policeman empowered to accuse, convict, and sentence criminal perpetrators on the spot for their crimes (up to and including doling out the death penalty), all with no oversight whatsoever. Dressed in a blue, red, and gold uniform covered in star-and-eagle motifs, Dredd is a one-man army with no interests, no emotions, no passions beyond the legal order that he enforces; his most famous catchphrase is his strident, ominous declaration: “I AM THE LAW!!!” Dredd, of course, is a satire: a grotesque caricature of popular romanticized cop protagonists whose sole solution to crime is to shoot it in the face. He famously never removes his helmet, which serves to dehumanize him—he’s not so much an individual as a living avatar for a faceless, merciless system. He lives in what is essentially a fascist police state, battling to uphold a rule of law and governance that puts absolute power in the hands of a militant few; the sick joke is that our protagonist is as much an oppressor as he is a “hero”.
Dredd became a hugely popular character in the U.K., but never achieved much exposure in the American comics scene (mostly due to the fact that he’s owned by a British publisher)2. But his stories have had an influence on pop culture regardless; most notably, Judge Dredd was a powerful tonal and visual inspiration for the film RoboCop (in which a normal man gets literally dehumanized into a Dredd-like automaton for enforcing justice by a corrupt, corporate-controlled state)3. That film was a razor-sharp, disturbingly prescient satire of the Reagan era, and it made a HUGE splash both at the box office and in the popular consciousness—spawning two sequels (of diminishing quality)4, a mediocre TV series, and a bloodless, homogenized 2014 remake. So given the success of Dredd’s spiritual successor—and the brief resurgence of comic book movies that came after the ’89 Batman—it was inevitable that Hollywood would eventually come calling for Ol’ Stoney Face himself.
There’s surprisingly little information available out there about how exactly Judge Dredd came to be5. I’m not sure if producer Edward R. Pressman (Wall Street, Bad Lieutenant, Street Fighter) sought the property out himself, or if it was optioned by production company Cinergi or distributor Hollywood Pictures (a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company… which means that Judge Dredd is, yes, a DISNEY MOVIE). By the same token, I have no idea if then-action-superstar Sylvester Stallone went looking to be cast in the part of Judge Joseph Dredd, or if the studio had to woo him into taking the role (though I DO know he only landed it once Arnold Schwarzenegger had already passed)6; once the Italian Stallion was on board, though, he had an outsized role to play in the way the final film shaped up. The director, Danny Cannon, was an up-and-coming young filmmaker at this point, and Judge Dredd was going to be his big break-out film in Hollywood; Cannon was actually a huge fan of the 2000 A.D. comic series, so he seemed like exactly the right man for the job7! And with a script by William Wisher (co-writer of the first two Terminator films) and Steven E. de Souza (48 Hours, Commando, The Running Man, Die Hard), boasting a budget of $90 million, this film had a tremendous potential to finally catapult Judge Dredd to mainstream stardom in the U.S.!
… And… well, it kinda did… by turning out to be one of the biggest bombs in Sylvester Stallone’s career.
IN THIS ISSUE: An otherwise serviceable Stallone action vehicle that accidentally endorses fascism, eugenics, and Rob Schneider.
To start, I should mention one thing up front: Stallone DOES make a really good Judge Dredd. The curly-lipped scowl, the straight-backed militant posture, his way with declamatory proclamations of legislative anthropomorphization… he really does embody the rigid, absolutist curmudgeon of the comics marvelously in the film. The performance is just exaggerated enough to be borderline ridiculous (especially in his amazing costume, with MASSIVE golden shoulder pads and a metal codpiece that gets its own close-up)8, but never stepping over the line into outright parody—and actually managing to be pretty badass at points. He’s great… while he’s actually playing Judge Dredd.
But once Dredd is removed from his role as Judge—framed for murder as part of a broader plot to seize control of the Justice Department—then any sense of coherent characterization goes out the window with his badge. He starts making quips during fights… relaxing his attitude… trying to be cool rather than playing Dredd’s single-minded righteousness. They even position Judge Hershey, his only “friend” among the Judges (played by a SMOKIN’-hot Diane Lane, who’s predictably given nothing to do for half the movie), as a romantic interest in the final act—something so alien and inappropriate to the character of Dredd that even their one, chaste kiss at the end of the film feels as weird as… well, as the chaste kiss between Rey and Ben Solo in The Rise of Skywalker. Ultimately, the film wants to humanize Dredd… and that is its fatal flaw. He quickly stops being “Judge Dredd” and starts being “Sylvester Stallone, Action Superstar”—and the movie starts to play out like a half-assed sequel to Demolition Man (another excellent satire that manages to outshine this movie).
Early in the movie, Judge Dredd does something shocking: he actually takes his helmet off, and rarely wears it again from that point forward (which would be utterly verboten in the books, where we never see Dredd’s face ONCE). Now, I would argue that this choice in-and-of-itself isn’t a BAD one, but it does make clear one of the biggest problems with the film: that this is a Sly Stallone vehicle first, and a Judge Dredd movie second.
Because it’s only aiming to be a burly ‘80s-style action extravaganza, the film works to simplify its sprawling narrative by dumbing down concepts from the comics as much as possible.
To start, the writers make sure to frame the Judges and the judicial system itself as unambiguously good by coding them with clear positive values and signifiers. For instance, the exact specifics of the laws and power structure in Mega-City One are vague and undefined… but the language used to DESCRIBE them are strongly evocative of democratic American values; early in the film, Chief Justice Fargo (played by the late Max Von Sydow, absolutely KILLING it in a role he’s obviously too good for) gives a short speech about how he hopes that the badge he wears will continue to stand for “freedom, not oppression”. The concept of “law” itself is granted an almost religious status in the world of Mega-City One: the law books we see are black, leather-bound tomes with gilded edges and golden-trimmed lettering that look suspiciously like BIBLES; the film’s main villain directly accuses Dredd of “worshiping” the law; and Dredd confirms this when he has a silent vigil and moment of affirmation before a statue of Blind Justice, a choir of harmonious voices soaring along with Alan Silvestri’s score. Law, the film argues, is intrinsically good, and therefore the Judges are automatically and unquestionably “the good guys” (because the Judge system is the only system of law and order they’ve got, so, hey, whaddaya gonna do?).
Judge Dredd’s “character arc” plays into this simplification. At the beginning of the film, he’s cold, unemotional9, and harsh—he sentences an essentially innocent man (Rob Schneider—WE’LL GET TO HIM) to five years in prison for breaking a minor law to save his own life. But rather than using this to illustrate that Judges wield too much power and to explore the ease with which it can be abused, the movie instead focuses on reprimanding Dredd for this one “mistake” and suggests that he should just lighten up before putting his helmet and badge back on. “See? The problems in Mega-City One aren’t systemic,” the film argues; “Judge Dredd just needs to be less of a jerk when exercising his unchecked militaristic authority!”
And speaking of ”oversimplification”, we GOTTA talk about Rico.
Our film’s main villain, Rico (played to the hilt by Armand Assante), is crazier than a sack full of kittens. He’s all bug-eyes and slimy, vaguely mobster-ish delivery, and his first scene ends with him letting loose a full-throated maniacal laugh. A former Judge (and a friend of Dredd’s from his Academy days) who suddenly snapped and started murdering innocents, Rico is eventually revealed to be Dredd’s BROTHER—or more accurately, both Dredd and Rico are revealed to be clones of Chief Justice Fargo10. The two were created as part of a plan called the Janus Project, conceived by the Justice Department to genetically engineer the perfect Judge—taking DNA samples from the Judges’ Council and “enhanc[ing] the best qualities and screen[ing] out the worst”. While this process apparently worked perfectly with Dredd, the film makes sure to spell out that something went wrong when it came to Rico, and that he was “genetically mutated into the perfect criminal”.
Now, in the comics, Rico Dredd11 is actually perfectly genetically identical to his brother, Joseph; his decision to become a criminal ultimately boiled down to his philosophical rejection of the law that Joseph so fervently embraced. But morality, philosophy, and choice are factored out of the film’s equation: in this movie, Dredd became the best Judge ever because he was genetically programmed to be a good guy, while Rico turns to crime because his mutated genes make him predisposed to be evil. This whole revelation comes with a disturbing implied argument that, not only is eugenics a valid policy… but that it’s actually a pretty good one when it works out right!
Rico is initially working at the behest of Council Judge Griffin (played by Sutter Cane himself, Jürgen Prochnow). Griffin is framed as the one bad apple in the Justice Department—a power-hungry would-be tyrant, openly snarling that the Judges need to “expand execution to include lesser crimes!” While he is still a Judge, the film codes him as differently as possible from the other Judges to make clear that he isn’t representative of the system. So while the other Council members have vaguely English or American accents, Griffin is performatively Germanic, prone to authoritarian rants about how the Judge system isn’t harsh enough and about how cloning an army of genetically perfect super-soldiers is the key to a harmonious society. Yep: he’s a full-blown Nazi12.
And to further remove any threat of the film challenging its audience, the Judge-Hunters—specialized soldiers who, er, hunt rogue Judges—are shown early on to be loyal only to Chief Justice Griffin, and completely willing to murder innocents on his orders. So it’s okay that Dredd totally blows away, like, a dozen of them while he’s on the run! They’re not simply innocent Judges trying to do their duty, after all… Hell, the guys are wearing full-body black armor with completely face-concealing helmets; they’re palette-swapped Stormtroopers!
These changes rob the Dredd story of its sardonic bite, leaving behind a cookie-cutter shoot-‘em-up with strawman villains and a cardboard hero. Even Mega-City One ITSELF has lost most of its socially-critical edge; while it’s ably realized by production designer Nigel Phelps (and make no mistake, this is a GORGEOUSLY produced movie, especially as shot by cinematographer Adrian Biddle13), the city proper is barely featured in the film—and when it is, it’s played largely straight, making for a generic sci-fi dystopia that feels like a cheap cross between Blade Runner and the Tim Burton Batman. The film takes its premise, its characters, and its setting FAR too seriously… but it’s not by any means a bleak, joyless slog! No, this is still a big, dumb blockbuster action movie: it may not have wit, but it has one-liners, cheap thrills, and, yes… comedy relief.
So I guess the time has finally come to talk about THIS f%$#ing guy.
Rob Schneider is a POX upon this film. A blight, a plague, a festering cancer that rots away the movie’s meager charms by simply being really, really annoying. After his arrest early on, Schneider (who plays “Fergie”, a low-level hacker) ends up on the same prison transport as Dredd—and once the transport goes down and they escape, he tags along with Dredd to break back into the Mega-City and stop Rico. The second half of the film is essentially a buddy movie—Midnight Run by way of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Schneider spends half his time in the film impotently snarking at Dredd, making childish jokes14 and bemoaning their situation… and the other half he spends screaming in terror, as he proves to be completely helpless in the face of every obstacle and needs Dredd to repeatedly rescue him every few minutes. He can’t shoot a gun… he can’t fly a hoverbike… he can’t even run in a straight line without falling to pieces and manically flailing about. His ONE contribution to the plot is during the climax, when he uses his “hacking” skills to take down Rico’s ABC Warrior robot15… but up to that point, he’s pure narrative dead weight, dragging the film down with his insufferably irritating presence.16
(Funny thing, though: while he does help Dredd to stop Rico and save the city, Fergie never actually has his conviction overturned. I like to think that, after they patch him up at a hospital, they just shipped him back out to Aspen Penal Colony on the next prison transport to serve his original five-year sentence… minus six months for aiding in a criminal investigation.)
Did you know that Judge Dredd is rated R? I sure as hell didn’t; when I first went back for this review, I’d assumed that this was a PG-13 hack-job aiming at the teen demographic. And it turns out I was half right.
The studio, Hollywood Pictures, had originally envisioned Judge Dredd as a mass-appeal PG-13 blockbuster—even moving forward with a tie-in promotional deal with Burger King to sell toys for kids meals. But apparently, no one at the production company (Cinergi) had bothered to tell director Danny Cannon that… and Cannon, being familiar with the comics, pushed hard to make a film that lived up to the ultraviolent sensibilities of the books. When the film made it into the editing bay and the studio realized he’d delivered a RoboCop rather than a Batman, they went into panic mode and tried to re-cut the film for a lower rating—cutting out much of the explicit gore and removing whole chunks of the film (a sequence where Dredd mows down an army of half-formed clone soldiers for the climax was spliced out entirely; the film jumps straight from the clones climbing out of their incubators to the whole lab complex self-destructing for no reason). The final film is left with a lot of choppy, toothless action beats that feel stagey and unconvincing as a result. The producers also attempted to brighten the overall tone of the film, even forcing Alan Silvestri to re-score a number of major sequences with a more openly superheroic, triumphant main theme… and it sounds AMAZING, because Alan Silvestri is a helluva composer!
Even with all of these changes, the film had to be submitted to the MPAA five times just to get its rating knocked down from an NC-17. This final cut clocks in at just 96 minutes, which is LIGHTNING fast for a sci-fi studio blockbuster; unfortunately, cutting the story down to the bone also makes all the cracks in the action-movie formula stand out more plainly. For instance, a full hour into the movie we’re introduced to a new character: Dr. Ilsa Hayden (Joan Chen17), a sexy Asian scientist working on the Janus Project. In her three short appearances, she doesn’t get much to do except to flirtatiously snipe at Rico for being a “petulant child”, and then (two scenes later) to stand idly by (and play with her cleavage, that part’s important) as he orders the ABC Robot to rip Judge Griffin limb from limb. The movie is so cut down, she barely has any character build-up… so once you get to the CLIMAX, it becomes depressingly obvious that the only reason she’s here is so that Judge Hershey can have a hot henchwoman to fight on the sidelines18.
Anyway, the film still ended up rated R (even though it had been cut to shreds), and Burger King sued Hollywood Pictures when they had to cancel their tie-in promotion. Everybody loses!
Judge Dredd is a British critique of American culture that’s been filtered back through American sensibilities that don’t recognize it as “critique”. It’s big, loud, ugly, and completely lacking in self-awareness. All of the overtly fascist imagery and iconography of the comics has made it over intact, but the filmmakers don’t acknowledge their subversive intent—instead presenting them as matter-of-fact representations of their most superficial values. The scathing, sardonic barbs have been replaced with slapstick, mugging, and broad humor. In the end, Dredd returns to his life as a street Judge, a crowd cheering him on, the status quo restored… and this stupid, stupid film thinks that this is a GOOD thing.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Well, it’s not completely valueless… but check your expectations. As a Judge Dredd adaptation it fails, because it’s not nearly as intelligent or caustic as its source material. As a Stallone action vehicle it fails, because of relentless tonal inconsistency, stagey action, and the painful over-reliance on “comedy relief”. But given the amazing sets, gorgeous costumes, and top-of-the-line effects work for the time… at least it looks cool?
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.25
- The First Fifteen Minutes: The opening stretch of this film is, honestly, kind of perfect! Yes, it starts with Schneider’s Fergie as our P.O.V. character, but through him we get our first, sweeping view of the scale of Mega-City One… and then we get a brilliant illustration of the class disparity as we descend from the gilded heights of the city to its fetid, rioting streets, and Fergie gets swept up in a nonsensical “block war”. Two Judges arrive, but they’re completely outmatched… and then Dredd arrives, his theme trumpeting behind him, assuming command of the scene and taking out the rioters before handing out a sentence on the lead thug (played by an uncredited James Remar… who is, admittedly, not doing his best work here). It’s the ENTIRE concept, clearly illustrated with effective dramatic storytelling—and better still, it’s the ONLY part of the movie that manages a beat of clear satire (when Dredd sentences Fergie to five years for rewiring a service droid to save his own life)19!
- Rico’s Manic Villain Speech: It’s not often that you get to see an entire campy performance epitomized in a single, magnificently over-the-top line read. Armand Assante’s Rico vacillates between smoothly seductive and cackling, wild-eyed mania throughout the film… but he reaches his absolute scenery-chewing pinnacle when he plots along with Chief Justice Griffin to bring a wave of terror to Mega-City One:
“You want fear? I’M fear. You want chaos? I’m the chaos! You want a new beginning? I AM THE NEW BEGINNING!”
It’s a thing of beauty:
- Judicial One-Liners: Because Judge Dredd is a fairly high-concept superhero/action hero (he’s LITERALLY “judge, jury, and executioner”), the screenwriters waste no opportunity to shoehorn in as many references to the legal system as they can (including the moment where Dredd stands reverently before a statue of Blind Justice—a figure that represents the exact opposite ideologies of justice as the ones Dredd prescribes to). But as a result, Stallone is saddled with some awkward, groan-worthy one-liners—“I’ll be the judge of that!”—and occasionally blurts out legal lingo while he’s in the middle of action scenes (at one point, while shooting down a charging cannibal hillbilly with a knife, the word “Guilty!” is looped in, as if to clarify that he’s shooting the guy on legal grounds—or just to remind us that he’s a “judge”). Possibly the worst of these is his ominous, croaking intonation of “Court’s adjourned”—which he uses at the beginning of the movie, after sentencing James Remar to death for killing a Judge… and then AGAIN at the end of the movie, when he flings Rico off the top of the Statue of Liberty.
- “Mean Machine” Angel: In a film filled with ostentatious characters and stunning visuals and make-up, the single scene featuring the Angel family—in particular, Christopher Adamson as “Mean Machine” Angel—STILL stands out as a highlight. One of the few recurring characters from the comics20, Mean is a cybernetically-enhanced survivor of the Cursed Earth wastelands, with a clawed robot right arm (opposite a gnarled stump for his left) and a dial built into his metal cranium that can increase his aggression for a fight. He and his family nearly kill Dredd and Fergie after pulling ‘em from their crashed prison transport, and they’re killed off pretty easily in the inevitable action sequence that follows. But this growling, monstrous cyborg-hillbilly makes an impression, even if he’s only a narrative afterthought.
- The Trial of Judge Dredd: From the start, this scene makes me laugh for the sheer incongruity of putting a courtroom scene into a movie about a futuristic society that has eliminated courtrooms by simply holding “court” in the streets. But that’s just a minor quibble of mine21, and not really what makes it shine; no, what makes THIS scene a winner is the delirious build-up of tension as the prosecuting Judge reveals her irrefutable proof of Dredd’s guilt. And after several slow zoom-ins to each of the character’s faces, the music swelling and growing more ominous, and the final reveal of the DNA coding on the bullets as Dredd’s own… Dredd just snaps and immediately screams,
“IT’S A LIE! The evidence has been falsified! It’s impossible! I never broke the law! I AM THE LAW!!!”
NEXT ISSUE: After two straight articles on failed satires and the complicated ways they screwed up their own central conceits, I’m ready for something simple, stupid, and straightforward. Something like, say, Nicolas Cage digging into a half-assed Spaghetti Western riff… with demons! Come back next time for a look at 2007’s Ghost Rider!