Most fans of the iconic comic book character Judge Dredd would prefer to forget Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 film adaptation, especially since Karl Urban came along and got it right. Urban stars in a movie simply titled “”, issued in September 2012, but with a proposal supposedly in the works, it’s worth remembering that both films get some things right and others very wrong.
Created by John Wagner and Carlos Esquerra in 1977, reluctant would-be cop Judge Joe Dredd is the lead character in the long-running British science fiction comic 2000AD. The helmeted, stone-faced top cop of the futuristic megacity Mega City One, Dredd appeared on the big screen twice: in 1995, long before the comic book characters became the dominant cinematic force they are today, Stallone spearheaded an animated attempt to spin the character into summer blockbuster. Fans and critics hated it.
Dredd was a much tougher and grown up version of the unsmiling lawman. Fans loved it and have been calling for a sequel ever since. This movie certainly nails the main character of Dredd himself, played by Urban a few years ago. But for me — a fan who’s been reading 2000 AD since I was a teenager — Dredd misses the mark everywhere else. To see these things done right, we need to look to the 1995 film, which got more right than you remember.
Now, I’m not saying 95’s Judge Dredd is good movie. It could have been a perfectly enjoyable 90s sci-fi actioner in the vein of Demolition Man or something starring Christopher Lambert. But it’s fatally undermined by mature dialogue, forced attempts at comedy and horribly misjudged casting.
However, if you look beyond the cast, the ’95 movie gets it pretty straight.
For starters, director Danny Cannon was given enough money to get the visual effects right and he totally nails the look of Mega City One. The sets, costumes and vehicles were fantastic. And the opening scene, in which the returning citizens descend from a towering sci-fi metropolis to war-torn streets, was as brief an introduction to Dredd terrain as you’ll ever see.
But it’s not just about the budget. The 1995 film references the comic’s rich history much more astutely than the 2012 version. From undead grim judges to mutated gorilla gangsters, from the Soviet assassin Orlok to the face-changing serial killer PJ Maybe, the comic is full with some of the most colorful, imaginative and complex villains seen in comics. What did the 2012 movie give us? A tower full of sleazy junkies.
To be honest, the 2012 film has nothing like the looming ABC warrior and the grotesque gang of angels from the 95 film, both triumphs of physical effects before CGI.
Fortunately, the TV series format has the scope to really explore the breadth and depth of Mega City One’s various denizens over multiple episodes. The series was first reported in 2017, but was recently reported to be on hold due to the pandemic.
The other thing the 2012 film lacks is humor. Stallone clashed with the 95 film’s director Danny Cannon on the comedic elements of the film, and it was terribly animated. But looking at the humorless 2012 model, with its radiating and blinding and darkly lingering close-ups of exit wounds gushing with blood and bone, Sly might have had a point.
Now I enjoy a little of the old ultraviolence as much as the next man. My life changed the moment I saw the cover of my first issue of 2000AD, which featured Dredd holding his nose up. But also on that cover is the title “Loser by a nose” – it’s the combination of pitch-black humor peppered with extreme violence that makes Judge Dredd (and 2000AD) what it is. Joe Dredd himself may and may never he smiles, but his straight manly demeanor anchors a city and a future that grows increasingly ridiculous.
Speaking of absurd: the 95 film starred Ian Dury, had costumes by Gianni Versace, and The Cure did the theme song. These are the crazy choices they madeso gloriously memorable two years later, and it’s the kind of absurdity sorely lacking in the 2012 Dredd movie.
Ultimately, the 2012 film gets Dredd himself right and Mega City One wrong. The 95 movie got Dredd and everything else right. The new TV show needs to use both if it wants to be a law unto itself.