Kids these days don’t know how good they have it. They live in an age of comic book movies being faithful to the stories they adapt, but back in the 1990s readers had to make due with whatever crud studios hastily whipped up to capitalize on popular iconography.
Enter 1995’s Judge Dredd, a film maligned by pretty much everyone who saw it, but one with charm that’s surprisingly potent when viewed from our contemporary vantage point. Here’s why you should watch (or revisit) the movie now that it’s available on Amazon Prime.
Joseph Dredd lives in a dystopian future where “MegaCities” crowd tens of millions of people into cramped urban spaces away from a toxic wasteland dubbed “the Cursed Earth.” Dredd is a Judge, an all-in-one cop, judiciary and, if need be, executioner. He doles out brutal punishment for both innocuous misdemeanors and violent crimes, of which there are plenty.
To combat a world of mutants, gangs, and the occasional evil robot, Dredd and the fleet of his fellow Judges are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and weapons, and cling to them and the law they uphold like a creed. They are inflexible and impenetrable. Dredd is also, as a result of this, a fascist.
An explosive, delightfully unsubtle commentary on police brutality and authoritarian rule, the British magazine 2000 AD debuted Dredd in 1977. He and the publication’s other distinctly punk characters were key in revitalizing the UK’s comic industry, but then came the ‘90s, a decade renowned for comic stagnation.
The burgeoning talents of the ‘70s and ‘80s who’d contributed to the magazine, including Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, had moved to America, and 2000 AD’s sales were declining. Hoping to replicate incredible comic book sales figures that followed in the wake of 1989’s Batman flick, a Dredd film starring Sylvester Stallone was produced. It was such a huge flop that fans would rather pretend it never happened.
But in revisiting it now, Judge Dredd stands out in interesting ways. There’s no denying that it’s awkward. It was produced at a time when creators and critics didn’t know how to handle comic book movies, by a studio who definitely didn’t know how to handle Dredd (or how much they themselves were being satirized by the comic).
But the moments where Judge Dredd embraces its own ridiculousness are undeniably winning. The bulky, colorful costume (designed, in a major twist, by Gianni Versace), Alan Silvestri’s pompous, swelling score, and the world design of MegaCity One all contribute to a noisy, heightened atmosphere that’s a fitting host to the battle between perverted ideas of right and wrong.
The aesthetics of the packed megapolis are brought to life in charming miniatures, chaotically busy sets, and eye-catching matte paintings. With all the souped-up cars, shopfronts, and automatons bleating propaganda (“Eat recycled food; it’s good for the environment, and okay for you!”) the world feels like Blade Runner on speed.
The film is dismissed as one of Stallone’s weakest offerings, something the action star admitted himself when he called it “a real missed opportunity” to bring prophetic warnings of police state horrors to the big screen. But the casting of Stallone works, in a strange way. After his success in the ‘80s, the ‘90s were tamer for big action heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and Stallone taking the role of Dredd is somewhat subversive. Seeing an iconic tough guy play a character emblematic of fascism underlines how easily the goodwill towards a heroic murder machine like Rambo or Cobra can be co-opted as a tool for authoritarianism.
A source of fan outrage is centered on Dredd’s iconic helmet. In the comics, Dredd is never seen without his headgear, but Stallone only wears it for a handful of scenes. But even that’s not a problem with Stallone as the lead. Stallone is a great performer when he has the right role, but he can often come across as wooden and emotionless. This dead-behind-the-eyes quality transmits something that should be at the core of all Dredd performances. He’s a character who, in his programmed quest for upholding social order, feels less than human.
More love is directed towards the Alex Garland-penned 2012 Dredd, a stripped-back action story focusing on a Raid-esque battle of two judges versus every armed inhabitant of an impossibly tall apartment block. It’s clearly the better film, with more visceral action and stronger characterization, but there are a few aspects where it’s shown up by its predecessor.
Dredd strips back the fun Judge uniforms to a dull leather get-up, and it’s not the only time color is washed off the character. Garland wrote a much drier film, featuring fewer clunky jokes and much less room for actors to ham it up. This won’t seem like a detriment to most viewers, but comic fans could miss the 1995 film’s lack of self-seriousness. Dredd stories, especially in the early days, were filled with all sorts of ludicrous, broadly comic obstacles, from an insecure and babyish robot companion to an uprising of talking cars. Judge Dredd may be punk, but it can also be silly.
Finally, there’s an ambitiousness to the 1995 film that has to be admired. The film crams in so many references to iconic story arcs that, despite feeling underdeveloped, always manage to keep the action interesting. There’s block wars, the Cursed Earth and its mutant populace, and the judge clones, and even though their inclusion is more fleeting than faithful, it’s fun seeing them brought to life at all. According to John Wagner, the character’s co-creator, these contributed to a messy final product, saying, “They tried to do too much and ended up with not a lot.” But, in an age where films are feeding us stories and characters piecemeal in order to set up another dozen properties, it’s oddly refreshing for a film to throw everything at us at once.
It’s easy to completely dismiss Judge Dredd as a botched attempt to bring a popular character to life. But it’s made all the more interesting as an insight into how films that now dominate our theaters used to be made. Its context makes it worth visiting for reasons other than morbid curiosity. We haven’t yet seen the full potential of 2000 AD’s champion on screen, but Judge Dredd is a much better start than people give it credit for.
Judge Dredd is now streaming on Amazon Prime.