Judge Dredd (1995) vs. Dredd (2012)

As a long-time 2000 AD fan (I read it from Prog 1 and stayed with it for three or four years) I’ve been reading David Bishop and Karl Stock’s fascinating Thrill-Power Overload: 2000 AD — the first forty years [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]. When I reached the section about the 1995 Judge Dredd film starring Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone, I was interested enough to watch it; and having seen that, I was interested to see the 2012 take starring Karl “Éomer” Urban.

So how do they measure up?

I mostly enjoyed the Stallone film, while not particularly feeling that it had much to do with Judge Dredd. My favourite moment was a little bit of world-building near the start, as a droid moving around a dilapidated tenement dolefully intones “Eat recycled food. It’s good for the environment, and OK for you.” But Stallone is completely wrong for the part, and everything about the film screams that it was created by a committee. The script is a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite, and it shows.

The premise is lifted from an early issue of 2000 AD: Dredd’s brother Rico returns from imprisonment seeking revenge. But the execution bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original, and loses all the sly humour of the comic in exchange for what is basically a romp. Dredd’s helmet is off before the end of the first act, and (spoilers) the film ends with him kissing Judge Hershey. The Angel Gang make an appearance, but they’re all dead before we can start to get a feel for who they are. It’s a strangely out-of-place bit of a fan service in a film that otherwise seems to be trying to escape from its roots.

Famously, Judge Dredd tanked at the box office, killing off hopes of a sequel and financially damaging 2000 AD itself. I can’t really regret that — it’s not a very good film and didn’t deserve to be a hit.

The film was so universally panned that it killed the character of Dredd for cinematic purposes. It took 17 years before someone took another stab at it — and, to be fair, critics have been kinder to Dredd (2012).

Not me, though. I found it a thoroughly nasty film, extremely violent and with a lot of the violence happening in very detailed slow motion. There seems to be no artistic justification for this — director Pete Travis just seems to have thought it would be cool. Instead, it’s the kind of violence that makes a film a depressing grind. So while I enjoyed the Dredd/Anderson interplay (credit to Urban and to Olivia Thirlby, who looks disturbingly like Veronica Mars), I was ready for the film to end long before it did.

The utter depravity of the bad guys was also unpleasant to witness. Perhaps it was done that way to make us overlook the very obvious fascist-police-state nature of the Judge system. It certainly had the effect of making me not feel sorry for them when they were, inevitably, mown down. But again, it has a grindingly unpleasant quality that left me wanting to take a shower.

The biggest failing of both films, for my money, is their absolute failure to catch the tone of the comics. While comics-Dredd is often exciting and threatening, it’s also often funny and satirical. Mega-City One in the comics — despite its inner ugliness — is a visual feast: an elegant maze of twisty towers and elevated roadways. But in the 1995 film, it’s merely downtown LA; and in the 2012 one it’s any slum anywhere, but with strangely evenly spaced gigantic tower blocks. The design has no vision, which is unforgivable when there is so much vision in the source material.

Speaking of which, one of the big mistakes of the 2012 film is that it’s almost entirely (except for the first and last few minutes) set inside a tower block. OK, it’s a big one — a kilometer high, apparently — but once you’re inside it, one tower block is much like any other. So the film devolves into a much less clever, witty and likeable Die Hard. There’s none of the sheer scope and epicness of the Judge Dredd we know from the comics. We’re told the population of Mega-City One is 800 million, but from what we see it could be a few hundred.

Similarly, while the earlier movie ventures out into the Cursed Earth, it turns out that the Cursed Earth is really tiny. It’s more like a deforested Central Park than a 2,500-mile-wide radioactive wasteland.

Putting it all together, both films are deeply disappointing. Someone, somewhere, might one day make a satisfying and enjoyable Judge Dredd film; but it won’t be until someone who knows and loves and gets the originals is at the helm. To fans of the comics, my advice would be a skip both of the extant films.

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18 responses to “Judge Dredd (1995) vs. Dredd (2012)

  1. The newer Dredd, interestingly, bear some resemblances with The Raid
    (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1899353/)

    A bad ass cop, locked in a building, have to beat his enemies one by one
    to reach the top of the building.

  2. And this, of course, is part of my problem with it: it’s a completely generic plot — almost an inevitable one. I mean, what action-movie directory hasn’t had the idea of of a bad-ass cop trapped in a building who has to beat a sequence of enemies to reach the Big Bad at the top? It writes itself. And feels more like a video-game than like a story.

    What I want is a Dredd movie that tells a story that could only be told in the Dredd universe.

  3. My problem with the second one — other than the point that it could have been any cop and there’s no reason for it to be Judge Dredd — is that it is, quite explicitly, ‘just another day in the life of Dredd’. The first film, for all its faults, gets this right: it’s not just another case, it’s his brother come back for revenge.

    This is one reason why Die Hard is so good, and most ‘Die Hard on a / in a X’ copycats are so bad: because Bruce Willis isn’t just trapped in a building with terrorists, he’s trapped in a building with terrorists who are holding is estranged wife hostage. It’s personal, it matters, and there’s more at stake than just ‘will he survive to the end and kill the big baddie?’

    The second film… will Dredd even remember the events of that day, a month on? And if not… then why should the audience?

  4. Another excellent point, H. Often it takes a couple of days before my feelings about a film settle; and now that I’ve had those couple of days for Dredd I am even less impressed than I was at the time, partly for the reason you mention.

  5. ‘The Raid’ worked extremely well since it built on the claustrophobia of its closed setting. It worked thematically, and it worked to advance the story. If nothing else, it was true to itself within its genre. The Dredd movies, I gather, aren’t true to anything and, as you note, toss just about everything worthwhile in the books.

  6. Great review; you highlight a number of points I didn’t put words to when I saw it .. the Die Hard (and thanks above, The Raid-ness) of it all.

    What bothered me was its lack of ‘getting the joke’ (much like the HHGttG film seems to have missed a lot of it..); Dredd isn’t supposed to himself be taken seriously, but is a weapon in the hand of the writer to show the failings in our system and to mock our attitudes.. somethign much needed especially today. (Is this why your entry came up, in light of what is going down in the US, and much of the West?) …

    Dress is the protagonist, but not really the hero, in the issues I’ve read…..

  7. Clearly any Judge Dredd film, done properly, must end up with him on the wrong side of the law (because a film must test a character to the extreme, not just be ‘another day on the beat’, and as Dredd is the symbol of the Law, pushng him to the extreme must involve him becoming a criminal). The first film did it by having him framed, which is a good idea, but means that’s been done; any new one should probably have him discover that the new Chief Judge is crazy and quick-temptered, barely understands the law and respects it less, issues bizarre and contradictory orders, and keeps firing his staff only to replace them with various farmyard animals (who are then fired in turn). Dredd finds he must go renegade in order to protect the Law from the Judges themselves.

    I think there might even be a comic story it could be based on, back in the archives.

  8. Yes, H: you are describing Judge Cal, who I remember well. Based, I assume, on the Roman emperor Caligula.

  9. I never quite know the etiquette of posting links under reviews to your own reviews. Hopefully it comes across as “ooh, I saw that one too” rather than “actually, I’ll think you’ll find”. But if it’s the second one, forget I said anything.

    http://comiczine-fa.com/reviews/dredd

    (Since writing it, I have learnt the difference between ‘credulous’ and ‘credible’.)

  10. Gavin, you should always feel free to post links to other relevant writings — especially your own reviews, which are invariably fascinating. I see you were rather kinder to the (recent) film than I was. Ultimately, watching it wasn’t much fun.

  11. To me, as Dredd isn’t really a character in any meaningful sense, there’s no point trying to give him any kind of character arc. It’s better that events are just another day at work for him. It’s better to assign the audience viewpoint to another character, who is seeing all this anew.

    And you could argue Dredd was always rooted in Seventies exploitation cinema, such as ‘Dirty Harry’, so when making a film it makes sense to reference those sources.

    But like you I did miss the madness of Mega City One, as if it was some crazy modernist sculpture that just happened to be big enough for people to live in. The idea that Mega City One was too crazy to be credible, that it couldn’t be conceived off as a real place, partly encouraged you to read those early Dredd stories as comic fables. Which I kind of feel is integral, it’s why Dredd isn’t just Dirty Harry in the future with a blaster gun.

  12. To me, as Dredd isn’t really a character in any meaningful sense, there’s no point trying to give him any kind of character arc. It’s better that events are just another day at work for him

    Whereas I would have no interest in that… which is possibly why I have never really been that interested in following the comics (I have read a few, and a couple of the collections, but while I have found them amusing, never really got that interested).

    Which makes me wonder whether the very things which the fans of the Judge Dredd comics like about them, are things which would make it a terrible film; and, conversely, in order to make a good film out of it, you have to ditch all the things which the people who lie the comics, like.

    So the audiences fora Judge Dredd film, and a comic, are non-overlapping circles. It’s one of those ideas which sounds good on paper but is just impossible to make work.

    What might be possible is to make it work as a TV series: then you could do the ‘every episode, a new mad thing about Mega-City One’ angle and have Dredd the unchanging centre through which the madness is observed.

    But a film? One that pleases the fans and also works as a film? I think that might be impossible.

  13. I think you’re right that Dredd would lend itself better to a TV show than to films — nice observation. To me, the key aspect is the world-building. Mega City One is the star of the show, and needs time to breathe: develop a truly idiosyncratic feel and a wide cast of crazies.

  14. Mega City One most definitely is the star of the show and Dredd is just its straight man. But then I think I’d say something similar about most comic strips turned into films. They were invented for serial form and get misshapen when made stand-alone, like walking around in too-small shoes. About the only exceptions are the ones which conspicuously don’t have Alan Moore’s name on the credits.

    ’Judge Dredd’ (rather than ’Dredd’) in particular makes the classic error of over-compression. It’s like it can’t chose what from the long history of the comics it wants to include, and tries to cram it all in. I suppose we’re lucky we didn’t get some Origin of Judge Dredd story in there as well.

  15. Well, I thought I was going to have to disagree with you regarding Alan Moore films, and say that while the Watchmen and Vendetta films are imperfect, there’s a lot to like about them both. Then I realised that they do indeed conspicuously lack his name on them, so I guess that’s what you meant.

    And of course the reason Watchmen, so long deemed “unfilmable”, actually does work as a film is because the comic series it’s adapted from was finite and made up a single coherent whole: in short, an actual graphic novel.

    So if someone really wanted to make another stab at a Dredd film, then the way to go would probably be to adapt The Cursed Earth, or at least some coherent subset of it. Except that of course that series takes place outside the very Mega City One that I’ve claimed is the most important character! All right, then, maybe The Day the Law Died? Come to think of it, that has more of a through-line to the story.

  16. On further reflection… well on reflection anyway, even ’Watchmen’ would have worked better in serial format. Maybe it wouldn’t need twelve episodes, but six or so. I can live without the Brechtian pirates (despite being a big fan of Brechtian pirates as a rule), but the street corner scenes should be in there.

    ’Watchmen’ scored well at the time as everyone had such low expectations. But it’s also one of those films which suffers in retrospect from the director’s succeeding career dip, which just serves to magnify its flaws. Seriously, did anyone do more to associate themselves with all that grimdark shit than Snyder?

    I actually think ’The Cursed Earth’ does work, because in the same way as Mega City One the locale becomes the main character. It’s like after finally taming the big bad city Dredd has to tangle with its wilder hillbilly cousin. Though for that reason it would need to be a sequel film, not an introduction to Dredd. IIRR, Pat Mills decided to set his Dredd in the Cursed Earth because he thought Grant and Wagner had Mega City One so down there was nothing for anyone else to add.

  17. Agreed that Watchmen as a six-part TV show is a more natural adaptation format than a film; but it’s still true that Watchmen is more filmable than most other comic-based stories. I must admit I always feel tempted to skip the Black Freighter segment (and Dreiberg’s prose piece about fearing owls) when I read Watchmen; but so far I’ve stayed strong.

    I’ve not knowingly seen any of Snyder’s other films, so my take on Watchmen is not influenced either way by knowing what he did before or after. Take out the unnecessarily graphic violence, and I think it would be 95% of the way there. It does a lot right, including — crucially — Dr. Manhattan.

    Cursed Earth worked in the comics because by the time we went out there we were already familiar with Mega City One, and understood the contrast. I’d support it as the venue for a sequel to a good Meg-based Dredd film (or better yet, as the third in a series) but not as the opener.

  18. Unless you count snatches of ’300’ I’ve seen on the telly (with I thought looked risible), the only other Snyder film I’ve seen is ’Man Of Steel’. When ’Batman vs. Superman’ came out it looked so much the epitome of everything I don’t like about superhero films so I didn’t bother seeing it. Making Wonder Woman a larger than life character was much more my idea of the way to do a superhero film. Even ’Suicide Squad’, despite its many faults, played into the inherent absurdity of superheroes rather than getting all po-faced about them.

    It’s not so much the degree of violence in ’Watchmen’ that galls me, nor even the fact that it’s unnecessary. (Though it is, nothing like that happens in the comic.) Other films have been more violent and bothered me less. It’s that it gives me the impression we’re supposed to find excess violence ‘mature’ and ‘grown up’.

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