still dredd-ful?

Last night, I saw the new Judge Dredd film, Dredd. I could go and review it, but there’s been a billion reviews of it already on various blogs and websites and the general consensus is that it’s a good film and far more true to the 2000AD comic than the 1995 Sylvester Stallone flick, Judge Dredd. The tone is pretty bleak and gritty as most post-Dark Knight comic adaptations are, and Dredd himself no longer looks like Sylvester Stallone but keeps his helmet on for the entire film, never showing his face just like in the book. I enjoyed it and it was a good action film, comparing quite favourably with the other recent tower-based action film, The Raid.

However, I’m going to take a bit of a different tack and review the 1995 version, which starred Sylvester Stallone.

I’d panned this film before when asked about it, as I’d felt that they tried to pack far too much into it by flying through the Cursed Earth, Mega City One, and Aspen Penal Colony in 90 minutes while trying to jam in as many character names as they possibly could from the comic book but not actually putting any effort into getting any of them right. Viewed through this lens, I felt it kind of sucked as I would have liked to have been introduced to the world of Dredd via a more faithful picture. However, if I junk it as an adaptation of the comic and just view it as a Sylvester Stallone action film… well, once I rewatched it today my thoughts are somewhat different.

I kind of have a weakness for 80s/90s action flicks, and this is a pretty decent one, if, as I said, you junk any preconceptions that this will be a faithful adaptation of Judge Dredd. The plot is actually very, very similar to Demolition Man – Judge Dredd is viewed as a bit of a dangerous liability for blowing everything up and killing a load of bad guys every time he’s called into action, and that reputation comes back to haunt him when he’s framed for the murder of a journalist and is sent off to prison. The real culprit is his brother Rico, a clone who was sent to prison but has been unleashed on the city by the authoritarian Judge Griffin, who wishes to use the chaos and terror Rico is creating to crack down hard and create a much stricter regime. Rico has other ideas and wants to take over the city himself with an army of his own clones, and only Dredd can stop him after getting back into the city from the Cursed Earth, killing a load of bad guys in a Return of the Jedi ripoff chase sequence and having a big fight in the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. Change a few details, and you’ve got Demolition Man basically, which was again a fun action film.

So: the acting…

Sylvester Stallone pretty much plays his stock in trade action hero in this – he spends a lot of his time shooting stuff before dispensing a one liner, and looks like someone who’s made a pretty good Judge Dredd costume until he takes the helmet off. As a portrayal of Dredd, however, Stallone portrays him in a far softer manner than the hard-edged Karl Urban version. His entrance, where he shows up to save a pair of rookie Judges from being shot up by gang-bangers shows him blowing up entire rooms of people although the audience is quite clearly on Dredd’s side with the bad guys shooting first after being warned. A later scene has him blowing up a man’s car in response to incorrect parking, whereas Urban’s Dredd might well have blown up the car with the man inside.

Stallone’s Dredd, on the other hand, comes across as a bit of a tight-ass douche at the beginning of the film rather than a merciless killing machine, and by the end he’s gone through the typical Hollywood journey of learning to lighten up a bit, discover the value of friendship and become more emotionally available to his Faux Action Girlfriend Judge Hershey (who we’ll get to in a bit) and by the end is grinning at his sidekick’s jokes and snogging his girlfriend among a crowd of cheering people as a shit 90s rock song starts up in true 90s action movie fashion. None of this feels like the image of Dredd many have, and I couldn’t picture Karl Urban’s Dredd kissing Olivia Thirlby after she sighs “it’s good to be human, don’t you think?”…

Dredd also has a comedy sidekick in the form of Fergee, who apparently in the comic was mentally retarded, but here is Rob Schneider. The name Rob Schneider usually makes my stomach churn after the memory of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo but him and Stallone seem to form a pretty good double act and the character is likable enough as someone to react to Stallone’s continuous gunbattles and set up the standard action movie one-liners. The fact that I didn’t just think “Fuck you, Schneider” and turn the film off means that this can probably be counted as the best performance of Schneider’s career.

Max von Sydow is fairly reliable as Chief Justice Fargo, Dredd’s father figure although he isn’t given much to do besides look like a kindly old man and be wise and benevolent. He helps to move the plot along, dying a sacrificial death to save Dredd from certain death at the hands of a family of murderous mutant hillbillies in the Cursed Earth, and then there’s Judge Hershey, played by Diane Lane. I went and looked up Judge Hershey on Wikipedia, and the film Hershey is basically in name only as Lane’s character is nothing like her.

Film Hershey is a young Judge recently out of the academy who looks up to Dredd and is the replacement for Sandra Bullock as Faux Action Girl. She’s almost exactly the same character as Bullock’s one in Demolition Man. Bullock is bouncy and vivacious next to stoic Stallone – in Judge Dredd, Dredd gives a somber speech to a group of cadet Judges about how their life will end in death or exile to the Cursed Earth, and then in the changing room Hershey bounces up to him and cheerfully chirps “We’re not all like that – I’ve got a social life and friends!”. My similarity sense is tingling…

Bullock’s character provides emotional support to Stallone when he realizes his family are dead – Hershey holds his hand and looks sympathetic when he realizes his life was a lie in a bed room. However Judge Dredd features one facet of the trope Demolition Man doesn’t – Hershey and Rico’s female scientist sidekick have a catfight while the men pound the hell out of each other so it’s not all the same. Still, Lane’s performance as Hershey pretty much underlined the similarities to Stallone’s other then-recent work to me, but I will say she’s a very good Faux Action Girlfriend.

Armand Assante is decent as the villain, Rico. He pretty much chews the scenery every time he’s on screen, but that’s no bad thing as it’s fairly obvious he had fun while making it. He even does a great hammy impersonation of Stallone’s reading of the word “law”:

As much as I used to say that the acting was abysmal, now I can’t say it was. The characters were nothing like their comic book counterparts, but they’re far more watchable than some of those in recent comic book adaptations: if you offered me the choice between watching Green Lantern with Ryan Reynolds or this, I think I’d choose this every time as even if it’s hammy acting it’s of the enjoyable variety rather than the tear-your-eyes-out-and-burn-them encountered in Lantern…

One area I feel that this film is actually superior to Dredd is the production design. Dredd takes place in a city of tower blocks that could vaguely pass for a modern-day setting. One scene in the new film involved tracking Dredd to a terminal in the tower block, and to do so the character tracking him pulled up a Unix terminal interface and used nmap, a command line utility that actually exists. The modern day computer tech, and the look of some of the vehicles on the roads didn’t really convey that much of a sense of the future to me, whereas Judge Dredd takes place in a world that’s admittedly been pretty much lifted straight from Blade Runner full of flying cars, dark dank towers with flashing neon signs and bustling lower streets with weirdly attired people. It felt more “alive” than the world depicted in Dredd, and felt far more convincing as a future setting. I think it’s just due to my personal prejudices about what “the Future” should look like, more than anything else though…

The soundtrack is also notable as well, being written by Alan Silvestri. It didn’t register as the credits scrolled by, but when Judge Dredd first steps onto the screen in the Block War sequence something sounded very familiar to me and then it struck me – 17 years later, it appears that Silvestri pretty much lifted the soundtrack from Judge Dredd, changed a few notes and then stuck it on The Avengers. Don’t believe me? First, listen to “Block War” from the Judge Dredd score:

and then “Assemble” from The Avengers:

and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not complaining – Silvestri writes a very good action movie soundtrack – but it might explain why I get deja vu so much when visiting the cinema. And I guess the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” saves film composers a lot of time.

To summarize, I think I was actually rather unfair to this film. It’s not a good adaptation of the character by any stretch of the imagination, but as a goofy, brainless action romp with some decent action sequences, some good production design and offering a fun, undemanding ride it’s actually rather good.

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