Retro Review: Judge Dredd (1995)

by Hedge

I recently saw the revival to the idea of a Judge Dredd film franchise, DREDD, in 3D and afterwards was discussing with my movie buddy how much better it was than the first try starring Max Von Sydow, Armand Assante and Sylvester Stallone’s chin. (I say his chin because despite Dredd taking his mask off after ten minutes of wearing it in the opening scene his lower jaw is the most emotive part of Stallone’s face). You can come back soon to read my review of DREDD, but the cliff notes are that if you haven’t gone to see it due to the bad taste left in your mouth by the 90’s attempt at bringing him to the big screen you are doing yourself, and a really good movie, a great injustice.

I honestly didn’t recall much about Judge Dredd, further than the fact that it was stupid. In 1995 I was in the eighth grade, and even then it didn’t entertain me much. I’m honestly not sure what this was rated – M? MA? I forget, and couldn’t find any information online. Either way, you’d think that a movie about a kick-ass executioner on a bike with a gun that selects from a wide range of ammo types would have been the perfect movie for a 13 year old. You’d have been wrong. 

Let’s jump right on in.

Judge Dredd the comic is, for those uninitiated, the story of Mega City One; a post-apocalyptic haven following the atomic wars of the later part of the 21st century. Judge Dredd the film is a biography of one banal, emotionless twerp. Seriously. It’s all about him. The comic, which I never read as a kid because I was too busy failing maths and thinking up ways to get out of PE, is based around the idea that after the world became an irradiated wasteland, they built the megacities. After that, people moved in, then a few more, then about a hundred million more, then a few more after that. So crowding was a problem I guess, and with crowding comes crime. It’s just how it goes. 

Enter: The Judges. Instead of a functioning criminal justice system, the Judges are the next best thing. They dispense “justice” whatever that means, mostly in the form of summary execution if this movie is to be believed. Judge Dredd is one of the best.

Cue title.

My first thoughts about this film were that Mega City One looks completely improbable. It’s got a very mid-90s pastiche look about it; similar to the Gotham City of Batman Forever; matte paintings and mismatched building types. It looks like something that was built to purpose, which really makes no sense if you think about it. This was something that rose AFTER the atomic wars; it wasn’t a shelter built before them that just happened to become overcrowded. Also the streets have names like Abbott and Costello. Which is dumb.

Those thoughts were immediately silenced by the realisation that Gianni Versace, yes that Gianni Versace, designed the Judge Dredd costume. What? It’s a spandex unitard and some shiny wrist and ankle cuffs. What was there to design that required the use of Gianni Fucking Versace? The improbable huge golden eagle upon one shoulder? I know it was from the comics but still. I digress.

When Stallone arrives on the scene, you know shit’s about to get real. Then his little Madonna-mic flips out and he begins proclaiming, without warning “I am the law”. I don’t understand why he had different armour to the other Judges, he did though. His gold plating was shiny and theirs looked like plastic. The rookie died pretty quick so they could pair Hershey and Dredd. Then Dredd said “court’s adjourned’ and killed the bad guy.

It was all very dramatic.

I did like the bit where Hershey turns Dredd’s own catchphrase on him. “I knew you’d say that” she says with a sneer. He’s such a tool, isn’t he Hershey?

See look, then there’s another purpose-built structure – the Hall of Justice, or Academy of Justice or something I’m not sure it’s kind of vague, and which for some reason is shaped like a giant eagle, wings spread on the cusp of flight. Why? Who designed this city and why was their priority, in the havoc of a nuclear war’s final days, the building of thematically humorous buildings and the relocation of the Statue of Liberty? Oh did I forget to mention that the Statue of Liberty is inexplicably now in the lower sectors of Mega City One? Because it is. Not even in the ritzy part. It’s basically near a freeway and a train station where prison parolees are returned to society. 

This movie is really dumb, and I’m only (at the time of writing this review) thirteen minutes in. I’m gonna get back to you after the whole thing is done.


Notes while watching, left here for your perusal:

Why would the autosentry guns shoot the warden only and not the prisoner next to him? Why wouldn’t they shoot both of them? In fact why would it start shooting him at all just because he couldn’t speak?

Coding the bullets with the DNA of the shooter. Okay. That doesn’t really make sense. I mean it kinda does, but mostly doesn’t. I mean fine, it helps you identify the shooter but why would you? Aren’t Judges supposed to be infallible? What actually bugs me about it though is that it renders the physics of the gun implausible. How does it do all that? Where does it store the coding rings for the literally hundreds of bullets the gun seems to store. Do they need a separate clip for them? They put a lot of effort into looking like they put a lot of effort into the design of the guns without actually putting any effort into thinking about how they would work.

If the wall is only that high, why don’t more people fly over it? Surely some would rather leave than stay. 

That door is really tiny. Like really tiny. Is that the only door outside the city?

How did Rico get the ABC robot into the Hall of Justice completely unseen? How did he then get it into the Chief Justice chambers? It’s an eight foot tall machine with glowing eyes. Surely somebody would have seen it. In fact how did he get it in there physically? It’s wider than the door is.

Oh look, the German guy’s the villain. How original. Didn’t see that coming.

And oh look, the cannibal scavengers are hillbillies with southern accents. Wait a minute. IS THAT HERSHEL FROM THE WALKING DEAD? Yes, yes it is. 

Look, this movie isn’t terrible it just isn’t any good.

Judge Dredd wanted to be a hard-hitting action film, a parody of action films, an action comedy and a pensive conversation on the role of authority in daily life and the corruption of a government left unchecked and sadly it didn’t do any of them very well. It didn’t help that Stallone is the wrong person for the role. He isn’t gritty. He’s a walking satire of action heroes and he plays the same generic, catchphrase spouting blockhead in almost every movie since Rocky. The other cast members here were great and had they settled on one, or even two of the things they were trying to achieve it could have worked. You’ve got Max Von Sydow. You’ve got James Earl Jones doing the intro voiceover as Mufasa from The Lion King. You’ve got Diane Lane. Then yeah, you’ve got Rob Schneider. Who needs to die in a house fire. 

None of this was helped by the contrived plot, consisting of a tired main arc where the city’s shining star falls from grace and must redeem himself, while saving his city from the brink of destruction and proving to himself, and his token female colleague that he is more than just a gun-wielding slab of meat. Which might have worked if the main character wasn’t played by a gun-wielding slab of meat. Oh and did I mention that the villain is also his twin brother / fellow clone? Because there is that subplot too and I’d like to say any of this was original then, and only seems contrived and overdone in the fullness of time but it felt contrived and overdone, not to mention poorly done, even then.

I can remember walking out of Judge Dredd as a kid and wondering why the villains needed to “instil chaos” in a city already tearing itself apart, in order to cement control. Aside from the terrible everything else, the main motivation and nefarious plot of the film’s antagonists doesn’t even make sense. You already framed Dredd for murder and got rid of him, and the former Chief Justice. You’re now the head of the city – just reduce patrols in the areas of the city particularly fond of blowing things up and sit back with a cold one. There’s no need at all for the last half of the movie.

At least Rico’s plan to clone more of himself an take over the city had some net benefit to his character. It all just seems cartoonishly over the top, like everyone in this is compensating for something and I’m not exactly sure what.

Oh and fuck how it annoyed me when Balthazar Getty used his magic computer skills to unphotoshop a scanned version of a physical photograph of Baby Dredd with family and somehow managed to show the background the photo was originally taken before. As though a printed happy-snap is an oil painting with layers to be peeled back to reveal the inevitable Potato Jesus beneath. WINDMILLS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY, GOODNIGHT!

Judge Dredd is a bad movie. It’s entertaining enough, in that way that bad movies sometimes are, but both Stallone and Judge Dredd (the character) creator John Wagner have said the movie is balls. You should probably take their word for it.

It gets like, 2/10 for being a decent movie to put on when you want to be angry at your TV for some reason and you can’t find an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras to watch.

Be sure to come back over the weekend for my review of the new film DREDD.

You can harass the author of the post via Twitter: @CAricHanley