Judge Dredd At 25

Jun 24, 2020

Some years before bemoaning the inception of the modern superhero movie with Tim Burton’s Batman, Sylvester Stallone donned the judge’s helmet and then controversially took it off again in 1995’s Judge Dredd. As this much maligned comic book adaptation reaches its twenty-fifth anniversary, I thought it was the perfect time to revisit the mean streets and towering city blocks of Mega-City One. These prove to be one film’s strongest aspects with a rich lived-in world full of cyberpunk tropes lifted straight from the pages of 2000 AD

From the outset Nigel Phelps and Matt Codd’s production design shines through. It instantly gives an idea of the world we are entering and the Cursed Earth that lies beyond, the decaying slums of the mega-blocks directly juxtaposed with the lavish offices of the Hall Of Justice. It is a place lived in by characters that are arguably most closely related to the cartoonish thugs John Wagner originally created in the late 1970s.

Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd costume, holding Lawgiver gun
Take a look at the jaw, man

That is exactly what Judge Dredd is. A caricature of a lawman who cares for nothing besides exacting justice to the absolute letter of the law. For a moment, as Stallone takes out a gang of warring criminals, all brass and bravado and zero tolerance, it looks promising. The ridiculously ornate Versace designed uniform and below, the jutting jaw and grimace which are trademarks of both Stallone and Dredd - they are one and the same. However, when that chiselled jawline starts spouting relentless zingers it becomes apparent we might be in trouble.

The now notorious demasking of Dredd compounds this feeling further. In over forty years of comics we have never seen Dredd’s face but here he reveals it voluntarily in the second scene. In some ways this decision is perhaps understandable - movies are not comics and when you’ve paid fifteen million dollars for that face you are going to want to show it. Really, this shouldn’t matter. Even without the visor Stallone delivers a glassy eyed performance that should be perfect for Joseph Dredd, except for the fact that the film wants us to care about the emotional turmoil of someone who just gunned down several people without prejudice. There are hints at this dichotomy in Judge Dredd throughout the first act before the film decides it is in fact a generic actioner after all.

It is a shame. One of the main problems Judge Dredd suffers from is its over-ambition. It takes several iconic Dredd stories and throws them together, including elements of 'The Long Walk' and 'The Judge Child Quest', stories that could easily support an entire movie on their own or even a whole series in the case of the story about the ABC Warrior. They are tales rich in lore and nuance, modern parables and fables that deal with morality and society. Here they are a confusion of ideas - albeit very pretty ones.

(Mean Machine) Angel with a dirty face

With hindsight, Judge Dredd seems like decadent, almost nihilistic film-making with no sense of the long view. Sure, nowadays in a post MCU world we are used to our comic movies building on what was set out before, but the creators of Judge Dredd the movie took everything and pounded it down to just over one and a half hours. The aforementioned ABC Warrior’s animatronic design is a thing of beauty but the grotesque Chris Cunningham nightmare that is Mean Machine Angel is underutilised, used up and disposed of in an unsatisfying manner.

With the power of its own convictions, this movie could have contained an original, thought-provoking plot that might have been totally at odds with the central conceit of Judge Dredd but not awful in and of itself. As an mid-nineties action movie this is comparable in quality to the more successful Stallone-starring Demolition Man but it lacks the satire of both that film and the comics on which it is was based. 

Combined with 2012’s Alex Garland penned Dredd we could have the perfect 2000 AD movie. The latter is a much more visceral film, with the main character’s fascistic teeth fully bared, but it lacks the humour that peppers the comics and the larger world of Mega-City One. Even amongst its blistering violence, Karl Urban’s Dredd shows character growth, finally accepting Olivia Thirlby’s rookie Judge Anderson - the initial buds of this movie’s character arc are blown away with the blast of Lawgiver.

Dusty desert scene showing walls of Mega-City One with travellers observing
The walls of Mega-City One

All this being said, it is a well meaning, sometimes nonsensical, mess of a movie not without its charms. “You know I wouldn’t harm a fellow Judge” says Dredd in a quieter moment directly following him throwing several Judges to their death. If you can overlook glaring contradictions like this along with the fact it isn’t really a Judge Dredd film and instead focus on the love poured into this project by the artists and designers who worked on it then you will have a very enjoyable time for what is a relatively short duration. But then again, you knew I was going to say that.


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