Revisiting the Reviled – Judge Dredd, a.k.a. Hooray for Fascism!

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I have a soft spot for dystopian science fiction. Films like Robocop, Escape From New York, and Brazil take us to horrific futuristic cityscapes using dark comic satire to make statements about systems of government and their relation to the individual, economic issues, societal trends, and more. On a purely surface level these films look like sci-fi fun, but under the glossy surface lies something much deeper. And then there’s 1995’s Judge Dredd, a film that trades in satirical barbs for action film clichés, and attempts to make the audience openly root for a mentally deranged fascist.

In the interest of pure transparency, I must state upfront that I’ve never read a single Judge Dredd comic book. Even though I’ve never ventured to read the books, I can most assuredly state that it likely isn’t so, uh, pro-fascist. A work doesn’t last because it asks the audience to openly root for a fascist without an element of subversion; without exploring greater themes of our relation to what law and order means. When I say that Judge Dredd is a fascist, it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to an authoritarian figure using force. I mean from his Versace designed uniform to his black-and-white view of the law, combined with his role as judge, jury, and executioner makes him the worst kind of violent authoritarian – you know, a fascist.

Stallone’s Dredd is the greatest judge to ever be judge, jury, and executioner ever. Shortly after wrongfully convicting a sad sack ex-con, Fergee (Rob Schneider), and being wrongfully convicted himself, Dredd and Fergee for a veritable odd couple determined to survive. That’s a barebones description. The film is much more overstuffed, with mentors, partners, genetic modification, cannibalistic hillbillies, and other stuff of actual little consequence.

Many of the film’s problems are really highlighted within the film’s opening scene. After some narration from the once-dignified voice of James Earl Jones, the film follows Fergee, fresh from a stay in prison, to find his new neighborhood and his apartment in the midst of a riot. The reasons for this riot outside of chants of, “Block war! Block war,” remain unclear, but there’s James Remar. Dredd arrives to the scene of the non-descript riot on his motorcycle, lowers the kickstand, and dismounts. “Rye ham deh law,” he exclaims. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a criminal like absolute nonsense.

Let this be a lesson for future filmmakers when introducing a character, and a lead character at that, it’s probably best that they say something remotely intelligible. But Judge Dredd does feature two actors for whom English is a second language, Max Von Sydow and Jürgen Prochnow, and each is more intelligible than Stallone throughout.

After Dredd lays waste to the chanting gangs, Fergee finds shelter in a roaming robot selling “recycled food,” or what this film thinks constitutes satire. Dredd proceeds to sentence Fergee to 5 years in prison. If there is anybody in the world that would take pleasure in Rob Schneider being needlessly persecuted by a fascist regime, it’s me. You know a film has glaring moral issues when I feel empathy for Rob Schneider.

This should bring me joy.

This should bring me joy.

Though Dredd’s judgment is doubted by his partner, Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), it does nothing. As is the case throughout the film, moral lessons are quickly forgotten. Whether it is the doubts of his partner or being confronted with the fallibility of the law that he worships, Dredd is never at any point a man experiencing change, reflection, or really anything except the chase or fight on screen at the given moment. It’s the kind of contradiction that is embodied by Dredd a fugitive, then sentence someone to death according to the infallible laws that have subsequently left him a fugitive. To top it all off Dredd then kills numerous members of his law enforcement brethren.

Through the film’s many villain, Rico (Armand Assante), the film shows just faintest elements of self-awareness. Assante seems to be the only actor aware of the quality of the script and thusly plays the role so over the top that he provides the film with its lone fun performance. But there’s nothing really to his character. He was once Dredd’s partner until he was found guilty of murder by Dredd. Kept secretly imprisoned until his escape aided by Judge Griffith (Prochnow).

Because this film is a rambling mess, the filmmakers couldn’t just leave the backstory where it was. Oh no, they had to make Dredd and Rico brothers. Genetically modified to be the perfect judges, the two become opposite sides of the same coin – Dredd being the greatest judge ever, Rico being the greatest criminal ever. Here’s another lesson from Judge Dredd: never make your characters simply genetically modified (see: Man of Steel). It’s a form of character nullification. It removes characteristics, making them the product of a process and not the culmination of their life experience.

Judge Dredd is really a film without its own identity. The film borrows liberally from three main sources of inspiration: Blade Runner, Robocop, and Total Recall. The cityscape itself comes across as merely an unimaginative reimagining of the cities in Total Recall and Blade Runner. The menacing combat robot that Rico has under his control is shot in a similar manner to that of the ED-209 sequences in Robocop. And, of course, the film’s climactic fight happens in the rain, Dredd hanging on to the Statue of Liberty as the villain looks down upon our vulnerable protagonist just like the end of Blade Runner.

Even worse, the film roots its humor from odd couple, buddy cop action films. A majority of the jokes consist of Schneider and Stallone bickering at one another. These are clichés that felt stale by the late-‘80s that here they feel especially out of place. The other form of joke in this film is having someone mock Stallone. Like the film’s plot, action, acting, or the forced romance between Dredd and Hershey, the humor falls flat.

For a film about law and order Judge Dredd only presents a certain subsection of its fictional city’s population, and they’re only one of two options: judge or bad guy. As much as Fergee is supposed to represent the commoner, he’s still an ex-con. Every other common figure in the film is a murderer, rioter, drug abuser, etc. There’s no character(s) to represent exactly who is benefited by the judges and the fascist regime they represent.

There’s also numerous moments that feel like they were included as fan service: the retirement ceremony of judges and the backwoods cannibalistic family. Their inclusion in the film feel like non sequiturs that slow the film’s central story; well, if it had a central story.

Judge Dredd is a dreadful (get it?) film. It meets at the intersection of tired ‘80s clichés and ‘90s comic book movie ineptness. Considering the on set battles between Stallone and first time director Danny Cannon, one could assume that Stallone is either A) unaware of what fascism is, or B) a fascist. Characters don’t develop, the trials and tribulations in the film are meaningless. In the end Dredd only seeks to restore everything to the status quo. And if you can’t get behind the status quo of a brutally violent fascist regime, what can you get behind?

Court’s adjourned.

 

Up next: Daredevil (2003)

 

 

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One Response

  1. elbee May 2, 2014 Reply

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