Judge Dredd is one of those properties that has huge potential for becoming the Next Big Franchise, but for some reason, Hollywood has never really figured out how to start it up properly. There’s been two films based on Judge Dredd, the first one was Danny Cannon’s Judge Dredd (1995) and the second, Dredd (2012). Both films were not as successful as expected by their producers, yet I have enjoyed both cinematic incarnations of the character, both for different reasons. Still, one could safely say that American audiences have not truly warmed up to Judge Dredd yet; both films were failed attempts at jump starting a franchise. One of the best examples of a failed franchise that Hollywood just won’t give up on are the Punisher films, which Hollywood has attempted to start off three times with no success; and two of these adaptations were produced during the current boom of comic book movies, so why the failure? If you ask me, I’d say that no matter how how much franchise potential a property might have, when a film like Green Lantern (2011) fails it proves only one thing: you still need a good movie to kick things off. Without that good first film, your franchise is going nowhere; which is why Danny Cannon’s Judge Dredd is such a conundrum for me. Cannon’s Judge Dredd is not a bad film in my book; actually, if you ask me, it’s quite the contrary, it should have started a whole franchise of Judge Dredd films! Still, back in 1995 audiences in the United States didn’t think a Judge Dredd movie was such a good idea, even with Sylvester Stallone attached as the main star of the film. Why did this first attempt to bring Judge Dredd to the silver screen fail?
In retrospect, Danny Cannon’s 1995 film wasn’t a total bomb. While it is true that the film failed to make its budget back in the United States where it only made 34 million; it did make more cash abroad, recuperating its 70 million dollar budget and making a grand total of 113 million worldwide. So things weren’t all that bad for this Stallone vehicle, it just didn’t make as much money as expected in the United States. But still, one has to wonder, why didn’t it perform? Well, it could have something to do with Judge Dredd not being as well known a character as other popular comic book properties. The roots of Judge Dredd go back to the U.K. where it first appeared in the illustrious science fiction comic book magazine 2000 A.D., way back in 1977. Now in the U.K. Judge Dredd is a well known comic book character, for example, it was considered one of the top ten comic book characters ever created by Empire Magazine. But the truth is that the grand majority of Americans don’t know what the hell 2000 A.D. is and with the exception of those hard core comic book geeks like myself, Judge Dredd simply hasn’t reached that level of recognition that other comic book characters have. So we could attribute the low box office intake to the fact that in the U.S., Judge Dredd is not that well known a character.
Judge Dredd has had a long and fruitful comic book life
But was Danny Cannon’s film really all that bad? Was it really all that unfaithful to the comics? Well, if you ask Judge Dredd creator John Wagner he’ll tell you that Cannon’s film “had nothing to do with Judge Dredd”. I can see where he is coming from, but I don’t necessarily agree. I’ve been reading the first issues of the old 1970’s Dredd comic books (and having a blast with them I might add!) and I have to say that Danny Cannon’s film is actually very close to what Wagner and Ezquerra originally created with their comics. There’s Mega City One, which by the way looks absolutely stunning in Cannon’s film. There’s a grand set design here, the city looks massive and convoluted the way Mega City should be, filled with crooks and chaos. Judge Dredd himself looks amazingly close to how he looks in the comics; the wardrobe by the way was designed by famed fashion mogul Gianni Versace! The suit might not look functional, but hell, it’s the Dredd from the comic books, there’s no denying that! The look for the new film looses the giant golden eagle shoulder pads for a more toned down and functional shoulder padding, but I have to admit, I like the look on Cannon’s film better, it just looks more like the Dredd from the comic books. You can tell there was a desire to be faithful to the iconic Judge Dredd suit, it only he’d worn it more through the film.
They got the guns right, they got Dredd’s motorcycle just as huge as in the comics and with built in machine guns! I tell ya, in look and overall feel, Danny Cannon’s film succeeds in transferring the comic book character and the world of Mega City One to the silver screen in a more successful and faithful manner than director Pete Travis’s Dredd (2012), which by comparison brings us a very scaled down version of Mega City One. This due to the fact that the makers of Dredd had a smaller budget than Cannon and Stallones film. The makers of Judge Dredd had a cool 70 million dollars to play with, some sites even say the budget was closer to 90 million, while the makers of Dredd had only 50 million. But apparently 70 million dollars could get you a heck of a lot back in ‘95 and as a result, Cannon’s film looks expensive, it’s one of those movies where you can see the millions up on the screen. It has big effects, big stars, and an imposing musical score arranged by Alan Silvestri. So if you ask this film connoisseur, I say Cannon’s film is better in these respects. It’s bigger, badder, louder. Unfortunately, the films levels of violence garnered it an ‘R’ rating and so, I think this too might have hurt its intake at the box office. Its target audience couldn’t go and see the film because it was restricted.
Thematically speaking, the film plays with a lot of important (if somewhat redundant) issues. First off, we have a corrupt judicial system, corrupt cops and a corrupt government. Their main purpose in life is to build an army so they can overtake the city. Same as real life politicians, the corrupt government of Mega City One uses criminals to purposely inflict fear in the hearts and minds of the people so they’ll have an excuse to build a clone army. By the way, the theme of corruption amongst the police force is touched upon yet again in Dredd. Cannon’s film centers around a story line from the old comic books called “The Return of Rico”, where ‘Rico’ - Judge Dredd’s evil brother- returns from exile to exact some revenge on those who sent him to prison. Armand Assante, one of my favorite actors and one who is criminally underrated in Hollywood, plays the over the top Rico, a great asset to this film. And speaking of Judge Dredd’s cast, we also get the awesome Max Von Sydow playing Judge Dredd’s father figure Judge Fargo. Sometimes the performances are tuned up a bit too much, Stallone himself said that the tone they went for was too ‘Hamlet’ when they should have kept it fun and gone more Hamlet and Eggs. I get what he’s saying, but I actually think it’s not all that serious, there’s a fine balancing act between serious sci-fi and goofy comic book movie on this one, what with Rob Schneider hopping along for the ride, a joke a second is always assured. True, I’m not the first to admit that Schneider doesn’t always hit the mark, but in my opinion he isn’t all that annoying, he’s just the a-typical comic relief character. If you want to blame someone for including Schneider here, blame Stallone, he’s the one that asked for him! Originally Stallone wanted Joe Pesci, but Pesci declined so they went with Schneider.
I’ve read many die hard Judge Dredd fans (the purists) complain that they didn’t like the fact that Stallone takes off the helmet and the uniform for most of the film, and I have to say I agree, taking the iconic Judge Dredd suit and helmet off for 90% of the film was not a good idea. In the Judge Dredd comics, we never get to see Dredd’s face, ever! It’s this big mystery that bathes the character with an enigmatic aura that works like magic. But in the films defense, we have to understand that Stallone was the big draw here and the producers didn’t want to hide their bankable film stars face in a helmet for the whole film, so in a way, it’s understandable that they did this. But I, along with many Dredd fans would have preferred to see more of Dredd looking like a Judge, not like Stallone. Wardrobe issues aside, Stallone did a good job in bringing the character to life, he plays him cold and robotic, the way Dredd should be. He shouts things like “I am the law!” and calls people “citizens and perps”. He sentences people on the spot, I mean, for all intents and purposes, this is Dredd come to life. I say you and I are lucky that this film turned out as cool as it id, during this production Stallone and Cannon didn’t see eye to eye in a great many things, yes my friends, this was a troubled production, things didn’t run smoothly between actor and director. So much so that Cannon vowed never again to work with big movie stars like Stallone. Still, I say that the end result is a fun movie, with great action, a good story, a good cast and great visual effects, Mega City One looks like something out of The Fifth Element (1997) mixed with Blade Runner (1982). An escapist film with great production values, I say give this one a second chance!
In comparison, Pete Travis’s Dredd is the complete opposite of Cannon’s film. It’s a smaller scale story, less epic, more personal. We get to follow Dredd and a rookie try and stop ‘Ma-Ma’, a big time drug dealer who resides on the 200th floor of Peach Tree building complex. It isn’t going to be an easy task, especially when Ma-Ma locks down the whole building! By keeping Dredd confined to one location, the filmmakers keep costs down by not having to show the futuristic exteriors of Mega City One, while at the same time giving us more time to focus on Dredd himself, which is something that sets this film apart, we are with Dredd for most of the films duration.
Gotta tell ya, if I’m given the choice to choose between both of these films, I’d choose Cannon’s film simply because its way more fun. Dredd is such a serious affair, so dreadful, it needed something to liven it up, it needed more sci-fi to it, more action, like the comics. As it is, we simply get Dredd going from floor to floor shooting people in slow motion, which in my opinion felt a little redundant after a while. I did like the slow motion effect of Slo-Mo. Basically, once you take it everything around you slows down to a crawl. Because of this, blood, shards of broken glass, bullets and tearing flesh, can all be appreciated in slow motion. Cool visuals in deed.
On this one, Dredd looks awesome as well. Yeah they lost the giant golden eagle shoulder pads, but it’s not a big loss, they went for a more realistic approach. Dredd almost looks like a real cop, closer to something we might see on the streets someday. But again, if asked to choose, I’d take the look from Cannon’s film better, simply because it’s more comic bookish, it’s the Dredd of the comics, not a toned down version that wants to be more realistic. This is something that filmmakers need to remember, when we go see a comic book film, we’re not looking for realism, we’re looking for escapism, we’re looking to see something we haven’t seen. Characters who do things we can’t do. And in my opinion, this is what brings Dredd down a bit, its desire to be more serious and realistic. In a Dredd film, I want the futuristic motorcycle, the flying cars, the killer robots, the cool weapons, the sci-fi, Dredd needed more sci-fi to it. But I get it, the budget was smaller, this wasn’t as big a production as Stallone’s film was, this is a smaller scale production, so I accepted it for what it is. And truth be told, I enjoyed Dredd. I read an article where Alex Garland speaks about this decidedly smaller scale film, and in it he explains that they went with this because they were testing out the waters to see if people would approve of this new film. Had this one worked, had it made some dough, we would have seen two more films, bigger in scale with the possible introduction of infamous Judge Death! But alas…this was not to be.
Unfortunately, Dredd bombed at the box office, even more so than Cannon’s film. Dredd cost 50 million, but only made 32; it didn’t even make its money back! That is the mark of death for any franchise. But again, you need a good entertaining first film to grab audiences and this one was so small scale that it failed to impress. Though well made, it simply wasn’t epic enough. Dredd feels like a whimper next to the big and loud Stallone film. But I’m not going down as saying Dredd is a bad film, I just think it wasn’t all it could have been. Sad story in my book, I wanted to see more of Judge Dredd! But fear not, thanks to the efforts of Judge Dredd creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd is becoming better known across the United States and the world. The old comics are getting reprinted and collected in these giant volumes that compile all of those old Judge Dredd comics that appeared in 2000 A.D., highly recommend searching those out! It’s very entertaining to see how this character has evolved through it’s comic book history. Judge Dredd has gone through various comic book companies, writers and artist. For example, DC comics has printed a couple of Judge Dredd series, and so has a company IDW Publishing, which by the way is currently printing a series as I type this. Hopefully Dredd (2012) will find its audience on dvd and awareness of the character will grow over the years. Until then, we got volumes of comic book history and these two films to quench our thirsts for all things Dredd. Here’s hoping that a couple of years down the line, Hollywood decides to give Judge Dredd another chance at franchise glory. Until then, according to municipal code 213: good hearted attempts at jump starting a franchise and Code 310: films that don’t deserve the bad rap they get and Code 201 of the Cinematic Crimes Journal, I the Film Connoisseur find both of these films NOT guilty! Go watch them and have a good time!
Rating Judge Dredd (1995): 4 ½
Rating Dredd (2012): 4
A fan made poster that Danny Cannon made when he was a teenager, before he even dreamed of directing Judge Dredd (1995). He submitted it to a contest for 2000 A.D. and won!