Judge Dredd

(Dir. Danny Cannon 1995)

I suppose that I should first state my bias. When a teenager, I used to look forward each week to my jolt of thrill-power – the latest edition of 2000 A.D. magazine, which featured the exploits of Judge Dredd. This is a very long-running comic strip, which has created for itself a detailed world setting, many characters, and a popular following. People older than I am might not know much about Judge Dredd, but for my generation, he is the equivalent of Superman or Batman. At my school, all the boys knew about Dredd and his world. He was more famous than Superman, and much better enjoyed. One common conversation about Dredd was that it would make a superb film. Nothing would need changing. a director could simply translate every frame of a Judge Dredd comic strip into a shot in a film, and the result would be great. There were many announcements of film projects, but nothing came to anything, until one day it was said that Sylvester Stallone had agreed to play the part of Dredd, and that this time the project would lead to a film.

Already, fans were apprehensive. The three main things required for the part of Dredd were 1. a clear commanding voice; 2. Height (Dredd is tall), and 3. An unknown face (Dredd’s face is NEVER shown in the comic – no one knows what he looks like). Stallone is famous, short, and bordering on unintelligible. Nevertheless, fans were for the most part glad that the film was going ahead, because, as we all agreed, it really would make a terrific film.

The film opens with a montage of comic covers featuring Dredd. This is a very odd way to start the film. It immediately breaks the spell which a film tries to create. How are we meant to suspend our disbelief when the first thing we are told is that he is just a fictional comic character? Also, the pictures of Dredd do not match the depiction of him in the film. The designers of the film decided to alter Dredd’s costumes significantly, for no apparent reason.

The story starts with a man coming out of prison, and returning to Megacity One. The city is portrayed as the standard modern Hollywood future city, and the images derive not from the comic, but oddly from the film Blade Runner. Whereas Megacity One is depicted in the comics as a bright sunny city, with mainly rounded buildings, and with numerous fly-overs and heavy wheeled traffic, the film instead shows us a city of perpetual night, dominated by square buildings covered in neon lights and television screens, and with a constant flow of flying vehicles of many kinds. On the street are the usual sorts of Hollywood dystopian civilians, in the usual sorts of costumes rather than the interesting and original civilians familiar to the readers of the comic.

A riot starts, and an appeal is put out for back up for the first judges on the scene. In the comic, we would have seen a picture of Dredd’s badge, as he sat listening on his lawmaster (huge motorbike), and he would have said a simple laconic “Dredd responding”. The director of the film misses this opportunity, and Dredd’s entrance is feeble. He then tells some fellow judges that since the rioters (far above in a building) are firing ammunition from outside its lethal range, they are safe. Not only does this not really make ballistic sense, but one imagines that such ludicrous tempting of fate would be followed by a piano’s landing on Dredd’s head. Stallone then, with his laughably bad enunciation, declares that all the rioters are under arrest.

Dredd and two judges (one is a “rookie”, but does not wear a rookie’s white helmet) then start to go into the city block and arrest the occupants one room at a time. Given the size of Megacity blocks, this method would take a few weeks, but Dredd and his accomplices seem to finish this in minutes. During the fight, Dredd uses his lawgiver (pistol). Fans of the comic would all be very familiar with the lawgiver and its powers. It is a pistol that can fire several different kinds of ammunition, including rubber ricochet, heat seeking, and armour piercing, all of which would have been useful in Dredd’s situation. Inexplicably, in the film, the lawgiver’s ammunition is changed, and includes the rather silly “double whammy”. I need to say more about the lawgiver. In the comic, the pistol is depicted as being very discriminate. It has an interesting sight at the back, which allows the user to see exactly where his bullet is going. With a lawgiver, a Megacity judge can pick out his man from the crowd, and not harm bystanders. The look of the gun in the comic is not great (slightly phallic, in fact), and I was unsurprised that the designers of the film had changed it. I was annoyed, though, they had decided to make it about as different as possible. Not only was its look totally unrelated to the guns of the comic, but it had been changed into an uncommonly indiscriminate weapon. In the film, the lawgiver scatters bullets around.

After pacifying the building, Dredd then sentences some of the criminals. He uses almost none of the comic’s language. The term “perp” for criminal is avoided. During this, a judge removes her helmet in front of one of those being sentenced. a judge never removes his helmet in front of the public in the comic, and yet this fundamental thing about judges is changed for no reason in the film. During the conversation, Dredd says that the sentenced man should have jumped out of the window, and that this, though suicide, would have been legal. This ruins one of the great ironies of the comic. In the comic, citizens are often trying to commit suicide, but suicide in Megacity One is illegal, and judges go to great risks to save “leapers”.

Soon, as expected, Judge Dredd removes his helmet, and we see Stallone’s face, with blue contact lenses. It is difficult to tell you how much of a no-no this is, if you have not read the comic. You might say that it doesn’t matter, since it is “only” a comic. Let me try and come up with an analogy. Perhaps you know about Superman. Imagine that you went to see a film called “Superman”, and you saw that Superman was played by a short blond tubby man in a mask, and that he had no cape, no S on his chest, and that he was a villain. Wouldn’t this annoy you a bit? Perhaps not. How about a film adaptation of Emma by Jane Austen, in which Emma is a Chinese secret agent running guns to the Republican forces in Spain in the 1940s? Wouldn’t the fact that the film claimed to be Jane Austen’s Emma annoy you, given its near total lack of faith to the original? For Dredd to take off his helmet is far worse than Emma’s being Chinese, or Superman’s having no S. It goes directly against the essence of the character’s image.

Worse still, Stallone tries to act. Another defining characteristic of Dredd is that he is calm, stoic and dignified pretty much all of the time. Throughout the film, Stallone, as well as many other characters, shouts a lot, and gets angry a lot. This detracts a lot from the power of his presence. He even gets upset when people mention his brother Rico, and he shows a vulnerable side to Judge Hershey when she asks a few questions. This is not Dredd.

The plot involves an impostor’s committing a murder in the guise of Dredd, in order to frame him. Dredd appears at his trial without his helmet, and listens to the proceedings. He is defended by a judge who came first in the law exams, and tried by several top judges. One might therefore consider it a bit odd that Dredd’s alibI is never discussed. No one asks him where he was at the time of the murder, despite this surely being rather important. As any reader of the comic would know, Dredd is almost permanently on duty, and his whereabouts could be ascertained at all times. Adding to the farce, Dredd cracks, and half-shouts half-sobs to his defence counsel “You gotta believe me!”. The scene lacks the power it would have had in the comic. In the comic, Dredd would have stood stoicly in his helmet, and when the due process of the law convicted him, he would have spoken a few laconic remarks, accepting the supremacy of the law above all, and then would have strode from the room with a dignity that would have left his sentencers feeling one inch tall.

If a film maker makes changes to a idea when adapting it for the screen, then those changes must be clearly for the better. The makers of this film have made so many changes to Dredd and his world, that it borders on the unrecognisable, and pretty much all the changes are for the worse. One might say that this could be excused if the makers showed a love for their subject. In fact, the reverse seems true. The makers seem to have such a hatred and disrespect for Judge Dredd, that they were determined to wreck it, and make a sequel impossible. For instance, they kill off almost all the main characters. Characters in the comic which had been long established and much reused get slaughtered out of hand in the film. Chief Judges Silver and McGruder are killed in a single burst of unnecessary gunfire. The entire Angel gang (in the comic, villains who returned a hundred times) is killed off in one quick and unconvincing fight. Chief Judge Griffin, who for the purposes of the film has been changed into a villain, also bites the dust. While I’m on the subject of dying judges, only one non-Euro-Caucasoid judge is seen in the film, and he dies about two seconds after he appears.

Showing a rare inability with comedy, the makers of this travesty of a film give Dredd a humorous sidekick called “Fergie”. In the comic, Fergie is a gigantic and violent simpleton. In the film, he is a small wise-cracking coward i.e. about as different as possible from the original. In the comic, there are many citizen characters, and these are often quite funny, because they are so irritating and stupid. Contrasting with these, the Fergie of the film is trying to be funny all the time, but is just irritating and stupid. At one point he is hit at short range by a burst of quadruple-barrelled heavy machine gun fire. To my great disappointment, he survives, and even remains conscious and wise-cracking.

You may by now have spotted that I don’t like this film very much, so I’ll spare you a scene by scene destruction of it, and just skip about pointing out particularly bad things.

Dredd and Fergie are trying to run into the city down a tunnel before a huge gout of flame incinerates them. It is firmly established that the flames rush from the incinerators in the city, out into the countryside. For no reason, Fergie falls over, and rather than stand up again and keep running, he cries for help. Dredd comes over and picks him up, making it clear that there was nothing to obstruct him. The pair then runs on, and the gout of flame which was to come from in front of them, for no reason appears behind them, rushing into the city from the countryside. Dismal.

One scene in the film establishes two things. First, that a certain room has in it a bullet-proof wall. This wall is the back wall of a firing range. Second, that the same room has in it the prototype for the new lawmaster bike, which doesn’t work, but should fly. Later in the film, Dredd makes his escape by shooting a hole in the wall previously established as bullet proof, and then flying away on the prototype. Several other judges then give chase riding – you guessed it – flying lawmasters. If the only prototype doesn’t work, and the old lawmasters don’t fly, how did his pursuers come by these vehicles? Also, during the chase, the judges pursuing Dredd take ludicrous risks with their own lives, to little purpose except their own predictable deaths. Meanwhile, Judge Dredd manoeuvres during the chase in a manner which puts the lives of many citizens in danger. The Dredd of the comics goes to near farcical lengths to avoid endangering civilians. The Dredd of the movie is rather cavalier. The lawmasters in the comics do not fly and have heavy auto-cannons. In the film, they fly, and have lasers.

Dredd is dealing with a man who has committed a traffic violation. Dredd fires a grenade into the man’s car and blows it up. He does this in a crowded street, endangering many passers by. In the comic, the judge next to Dredd would have arrested Dredd on the spot for reckless endangerment, destruction of property, inappropriate use of a firearm, and probably a few other offences. Mind you, in the comic, Dredd wouldn’t have done anything so stupid.

For plot reasons, Rico and Dredd are identical twins in the film, with identical DNA. It is odd, then, that the two of them do not look or behave the same way. At one point Rico gives a machine DNA sample. Today, such samples can be extracted from a drop of blood, but in the film, the process involves several huge needles probing deep into Rico’s arm. In the comic, Dredd knew that Rico was his brother, and knew that he, like almost all judges, was cloned and raised artificially. In the film, this news about Rico comes as a shock to Dredd, and he gets tearful about it, and judges are not clones, but are normal humans. Again, you may think that this doesn’t really matter, but think again of Superman. What if a film of Superman portrayed the hero as having come not from the planet Krypton as a baby, but from Guildford when his dad changed jobs? The change is as bad.

In the film is an ABC warrior. In the comic 2000 A.D., the ABC warriors were in a totally different and unrelated strip.

During one of the many badly-staged fights, Dredd is surrounded by elite and heavily armed foes. After shooting those in sight, Dredd ditches his gun. Why? Predictably, he is attacked again, but despite several very effective weapons lying at his feet, he chooses to arm himself with a small piece of wood.

One thing which happens over and over again in the film, is Dredd’s having his life saved when the person threatening him is suddenly shot in the back by an ally of Dredd’s. The first time was bad enough, but by the fifth it was getting really tedious.

I have managed to think of one good thing about the film. Max von Sydow is excellent as Chief Justice Fargo. In the comic, Fargo is dead long before Dredd is born, so this character shouldn’t really be in the film, but I feel it necessary to be fair to Max and point out that he did a great job.

Amazingly enough, John Wagner III and Carlos Ezquerra are given writing credits on the film. Both these men worked on the comic version of Dredd, which is surprising, given all I have written above. Perhaps all that they contributed was ignored by the film makers, and they were given the credits just to please the fans. In the entire film, there is perhaps one line which seemed similar to something Dredd might have said in the comic. Dredd refers to the plan of entering the city via the incinerator vent, as tried by some refugees some time before. “They all roasted, but the principle is still sound.” I wish he was referring to the people responsible for this film. After the film came out, the value of my back issue collection of 2000 A.D. comics was cut to a third.

Addendum, June 2005

I recently saw an interview on television with Sylvester Stallone, in which he recalled working on Judge Dredd. He said that half way through making the film he said to the director that this was supposed to be a comic, but that it didn't seem very funny to him. He was being absolutely serious.

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