With the release of Dredd (or Dredd 3D, as the marketing boys are hip to calling it), fans can see that the filmmakers have taken every precaution not to remind you of the 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone as Dredd. They know how much that movie was hated by Dredd fans and mammals in general, so they’ve distanced themselves here. Is it for the better? For the most part, yes, but not always; and overall, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. I revisited the original film last week and found it to be a pretty interesting comparison to the new one, which I’ve also seen.
Although the character is American, Judge Dredd is more familiar to comic book readers across the pond, where he is considered one of, if not the, most well-known homegrown character. Dredd first appeared in the second issue of UK’s premiere anthology comic magazine 2000AD, considered to be the breeding ground for UK comics talents, including heavies like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, among many, many others—all of whom wrote Judge Dredd stories at some point in their careers (with the exception of Moore, whose script was never published but landed him a job on a different 2000AD strip).
Having been a casual reader over the years, I didn’t think either film captured just how weird and subversive the Dredd comics were, and still are.
The Stallone film holds the reputation of being a bastardization of the comics, and indeed its creator John Wagner has said as much. Dredd takes his helmet off to reveal Sly’s face (a major no-no for the character), he has a love interest (he’s a virgin in the comics), and in the second half of the film, the character virtually disappears, and we are instead treated to a bad Demolition Man sequel where Stallone runs around making jokey quips while saving Rob Schneider’s ass.
These aren’t what makes it a bad Judge Dredd movie, though. It’s a bad Judge Dredd movie because it’s a really badly made movie. It has Stallone perhaps at his most unintelligible, and you can tell that he didn’t really give a shit about the character and was just hamming it up. Whatever Stallone’s limitations are as an actor, and there’s a list of that, you can at least recognize when he’s committed to a role, even in stuff like Cliffhanger or Over the Top. Here, he’s just yelling “Hi ham… Duh LAWH!” dispassionately like he’s ready to step off the set to call it a day. There’s also Diane Lane embarrassingly playing Judge Hershey like a hair-whipping supermodel who is also, please believe her, a tough cop. And I mentioned that Rob Schneider’s in this, right?
The new Dredd eclipses it in almost every way, from its lead actor to its action scenes, but it’s also not as ambitious in its depiction. The film is largely confined to one barely futuristic setting, pits Dredd against contemporary-looking regular criminals, and tells a straightforward siege movie rather than a sci-fi story. Many have already observed its similarities to The Raid in its tower-climbing premise.
Like the toned-down Judge’s costume that doesn’t have the big eagle shoulder pads of the comics or the Stallone movie, the new Dredd‘s approach to Dredd’s home of Mega-City One is of the Bryan “What’d you expect? Yellow spandex?” Singer variety. Gone is the over-the-top and depraved vision of the expansive futuristic metropolitan that always seemed like a cross between Akira and Idiocracy, in favor of what is basically Cape Town with a few CGI skyscrapers. Dredd only depicts the pedestrian side of Mega-City One briefly, at the beginning of the movie, but the littered, somewhat populated streets show no sign of the place’s overcrowding problem as a city of 800 million.
It’s rather strange that by the fact that we never see Karl Urban’s face in the movie alone, Dredd is automatically regarded by many as the more faithful version, even though Stallone’s version actually attempted to capture the look and tone of the comics much more than the new film.
The fastest way to contrast the two is the language. Both films are rated R, but the Stallone film earned its rating only through gratuitous blood and violence—it’s a Stallone movie, after all—because it adopts the comic’s use of fictional future swear words (“Grud” and “Drokk” being the most common). Urban’s, however, goes for a grittier, more realistic tone by using the word “fuck” and its numerous present day variations very liberally throughout the film.
The Stallone movie also attempted to capture the comic’s satiric bent—though it was terribly inept at it. I’m sure they thought it very clever of them to cast German actor Jurgen Prochnow as the evil, thoroughly fascist Judge, trying to wrest control from the kinder, more liberal Judge played by Swedish actor Max von Sydow, with the American Sylvester Stallone caught in the middle. Political insight!
When the Judge Dredd strip debuted in 1977, the initial idea was to show the errors of the Dirty Harry brand of police heroism by using a futuristic science-fiction setting to lampoon it. The Dredd creators extrapolated contemporary militarization of cops to an extreme police state America where the letter of the law, not freedom, is the nation’s priority.
As such, Dredd and his fellow Judges are not always the heroes of their stories. It’s a fascinating concept for a character because we are essentially made to root for the villains in THX 1138. Far from being a right-winger’s wank bank, however, the Dredd stories were always intended to be satirical in nature, though for the first decade of its publication, the harsh life of a Mega-City citizen living under the Judges’ rule was mostly conveyed through humorous absurdities. In the Judge Death storyline, Dredd listens to an old man reporting a crime, thanks the citizen, then gives him a ticket for stopping in a Judge-only lane.
Surprisingly, the Stallone movie featured quite a bit of this sense of humor. There’s an aside where Dredd grenades a car for parking incorrectly, and the first meeting between Dredd and Fergee (Schneider) tells us a lot about Dredd. Fergee has just been released from prison to find his block in the middle of a war. He takes cover from the shootings by hiding inside a robot janitor. Dredd catches him and charges him for damaging public property.
Fergee: 5 years? No! No! I had no choice! They were killing each other in there!
Judge Dredd: You could have gone out the window.
Fergee: 40 floors? It would have been suicide!
Judge Dredd: Maybe, but it’s legal.
It’s the kind of black humor that defines the comic in its formative years. Dredd is the extreme version of the chaste, disciplined hero, which makes him equal parts badass and tightass. Karl Urban’s Dredd is an excellent performance of the character—his Clint Eastwood gravel voice is pitch perfect—but because he spends the entire movie trapped in combat with hardened criminals who deserve his hardcore response, Urban never got the chance to explore that day-to-day interaction with normal citizens that usually leave them more than a little frustrated at Dredd’s sense of justice.
The new Dredd does have some speckles of this aspect. The new, dangerous drug being called “Slo-Mo,” for instance, is reminiscent of how one of the deadliest viruses in the comics was called “2 T (fru) T.” The villain Ma-Ma was described in Alex Garland’s original script as an “obese septuagenarian with heavy scarring,” which falls more in line with the comic’s usual band of robots, mutants, and other-dimensional grotesques that Dredd usually goes up against—as shown in Stallone’s movie. The casting of Lena Headey (who to be fair, is great in her villainous role) obviously put the kibosh on that concept, and turns Ma-Ma into a criminal befitting of any other cop movie.
There’s something to be said about being too beholden to a comic, of course. I believe that the main issue with the Stallone film’s script was that it attempted to put in way too many references to the comics. Every speaking-role character they put in was taken from the comics, and the plot is a mutated amalgamation of The Return of Rico, The Cursed Earth, The Day the Law Died and Tale of the Dead Man, resulting in an utterly unintelligible mess that has none of those stories’ actual points of interest.
On the complete opposite, Urban’s Dredd is mostly original content. It’s also a monolithic grey that takes itself too seriously (the Dark Knight curse of comic book adaptations). It’s stripped of the politics, weirdness, and richness of the comics, but it is a fittingly streamlined representation of what the character does. It acts as a lean, mean, standalone 2000AD prog featuring the character.
The question is what you’re supposed to expect in a movie based on a long-running publication. One assumes that the movie should represent the character as a whole to a wider audience, acting as an ambassador to the comic’s appeal, rather than simply offering a mere episode.
Judging the two movies by cinematic terms, Urban’s Dredd is obviously the better of the two, but still not a great movie in itself. At the end of the day, it’s a simplistic and generic plot, and while the same story was used as a backdrop to showcase tremendous martial arts sequences in The Raid, here it acts as the backdrop to fun, but ultimately unmemorable cop movie shootouts. Somewhere between these two movies exists a great Dredd movie, but neither came close.
Of course, one has actually been made already. The best Judge Dredd movie came out in 1987, but it was called Robocop instead.
“I’m not a big fan of reading science-fiction, I have enormous trouble reading science-fiction, which I always find very heavy. I do not find it difficult to read science-fiction comics. You know, Robocop was obviously very influenced by the English comic Judge Dredd.”
– Paul Verhoeven, in a 2002 interview
For Judge Dredd fans, this was all too obvious. Robocop combines ultra violence and black humor for a dark, futuristic satire. Alex Murphy’s personal struggle is all his, obviously, but the deviant street gangs, Robocop’s obliviousness to legal ambiguity, even the ridiculous home products in the fake ads that interrupt the movie—these are things that would be right at home in a Judge Dredd movie. It’s just one example of how immensely influential Judge Dredd is in comics and film, despite it being rarely recognized.
See you in Part 2 soon as we talk more about how Judge Dredd brilliantly explored democracy and fascism. Fun stuff!
Footnote: the headline image of Karl Urban’s Dredd punching Stallone’s is by artist John Spelling, parodying a panel by Brian Bolland from Judge Death—widely regarded as one of the greatest panels in comic book history, a claim I’m inclined to agree with.