Monday, February 11, 2013

Judge Dredd - 1995

"Judge Dredd" - 1995
Dir. by Danny Cannon - 1 hr. 36 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You can tell a lot from how Hollywood handles comic book movies by the difference between this 1995 version and last year's version of movies made based on the Judge Dredd character.  The basic difference is that filmmakers in 1995 didn't have a god-damned clue what to do with the source material.  The 2012 film is solid, made it's money back, and was vastly more entertaining than I expected.  If that movie had come out in 1995, it would have blown people's minds, in the way that "The Matrix" did when it came out.  Now, it's just expected that any (non-DC) comic book movie is going to be pretty decent, and not radically violate the rules surrounding the source material.  But in 1995...

The world has gone to Hell, and the entire Earth's population has settle in one Mega City that spans the entire Eastern Seaboard.  Since the dense population is difficult to control, the entire judicial system is condensed into one person: a judge that also carries out sentencing and the sentence itself.  Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) is the finest of the judges.  Naturally, that means that he's framed for a murder by the long-lost brother he never even knew he had, Rico Dredd (Armand Assante).  Once Judge Dredd is stripped of his position and sent to jail (alongside Herman, played by Rob Schneider!), he must fight his way back into the city to confront his brother and to blow things up.

If I wanted to comprehensively cover all of the ways this movie was terrible, I'd still be typing three days from now.  Instead, I'll focus on three main areas of problems: derivative-ness, inability to grasp the source material, and absurdity.  You can't exactly judge a film for looking like a film from it's era, but this is super-true for "Judge Dredd."  There's a kind of shininess that's a hallmark of sci-fi films from this time-frame; everything takes place in the dark, but everything's also kind of well-lit and sometimes features neon.  When it's done poorly (like here, or in the Joel Schumacher Batman films), it just looks like you stepped into an arcade in your cargo shorts and flannels, and there's no dirt on anything anywhere.  I suppose this look came from Paul Verhoeven, in movies like "Robocop," "Total Recall," or "Starship Troopers."  It works for his films, partly because there's a built-in cheesiness to what he does (I mean that as a compliment, I swear).  The look feels organic for Verhoeven, but only because it feels like the actors are on the same page as he is. Here, it feels like the actors are drawing on the 1960's Batman film - Stallone is a mix between Adam West (especially when he's got his helmet on) and Fonzie (two direct Fonzie rips - he says at one point that he's never apologized to anyone in his life, and at another point he bangs on a piece of technology with his fist to make it work, and it actually starts working!), Armand Assante is also on the Batman tip with a blend of Nicholson and Cesar Romero's versions of the Joker, and Rob Schneider is every annoying pocket-sized sidekick ever.

There's also the section of the film that feels like it's exactly the "Back to the Future" ride from Universal Studios theme park.  I don't know what else to say about that other than if you have been on that ride, the sky-motorcycle chase scene in the third act is going to feel super-familiar.

It took a lot of bad comic book movies for Hollywood to get even a loose grasp on making this genre of film work.  One of the things that many filmmakers didn't understand is that there are very specific reasons why each character works for it's fans.  Yes, Spider-Man is kinda emo sometimes, but he's also funny, and it's an underdog story.  This is why there should never be a movie where he leads the Avengers.  Batman is an ass-kicking machine with all the best toys, this is why romance plots involving Bruce Wayne are rarely the best Batman stories.  Judge Dredd is all-work, deadly serious (although the comics are darkly humorous, and not "dishing out crappy one-liners" humorous like Stallone seems to think), always gets the job done.  He's a juggernaut of justice.  He literally shoots criminals in the face when he catches them.  The source material is an ultra-violent statement on a fascist government agency.

In the comics, Judge Dredd literally (literally!) never removes his helmet.  At least not so the reader can see in his face.  So why would you have Stallone's Dredd take his helmet off in the first fifteen minutes of the film, and spend more time bare-faced than helmeted?  Or more to the point, why, when comic books were the furthest from cool they could be (and I say this as someone who was working on the very periphery of self-publishing at that time (as well as having worked in a comic-book store during that time period), and thus tasked with try to sell uncool products to people who could care less), would the very first thing you see on the screen when the movie starts is a collage of "Judge Dredd" comic book covers and panels?  Did these filmmakers believe the sort of people who either liked the comic or would go see a Stallone film would care that Gianni Versace designed the Dredd costume (absurdly, I might add)?  Were they not aware that the early-film shot that pans up Dredd's Versace threads from head to toe also leads to a full-screen close-up of Dredd's codpiece?  Or did they think that a Stallone/Dredd audience (and let's peg it exactly - a teenage/early 20's guy who wants to see things blow up and people get shot) might not be that interested in the only female character, Dredd's peer Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), haranguing Dredd for not sharing his feelings?

A film that starred a man in a codpiece grossed over $100 million in the mid-90s.  Think about that for a minute.  But at every turn, "Judge Dredd" is a film that seems to be a baffling collection of the vanity quirks of everyone involved, rather than an attempt to make a decent film.  There doesn't seem to be any grasp of the material that they're supposed to be interpreting; Dredd is supposed to be a symbol of government oppression, and this film becomes a man vs. system story before it turns into the brother vs. brother story.  The costumes look awful (too shiny, which is absurd in a profession where you can expect to be shot at frequently), and Dredd is literally the opposite of someone who seeks attention and adoration, but the costume seems to be an excuse for Stallone to stand around, helmet off, with his chest puffed out and his ass stuck out so you can see how much he's been working out.

But really, the key word for "Judge Dredd" is "absurd."  And not in a clever way, or an ironic way, but more like a WTF, what were they thinking kind of absurdity.  Everyone engaged here (aside from Diane Lane, when she wasn't scripted to whine about Dredd's feelings) seems to think that a comic book being the source material means that you have to act like a cartoony villain.  When you a have a standard-issue plot and overall look, there has to be something to ground the story.  No one seemed to be both willing to do that and was in a position for it to matter.  The result is condescension: the actors inability to commit to the material tells viewers that the material isn't worth taking seriously.  For a film that was in a genre on shaky legs at that point, comic book fans can smell that sort of attitude a mile off.  And unlike now, when you can see a comic book movie every couple of weeks at the multiplex, this was a blown opportunity.  A big-budget adaptation with a real movie star wasn't something that came along every day; it's more likely you'd get something like "Monkeybone," starring someone you'd heard of (Brendan Fraser) in a role almost tailor-made to guarantee that his fans wouldn't want anything to do with the film.

So not only does "Judge Dredd" suck nearly as badly as any film I've managed to watch in it's entirety, but it was a (at the time) rare opportunity for such an adaptation to succeed completely botched.  I laughed all the way through "Judge Dredd" in the way you would at "Plan 9 From Outer Space"; in complete bafflement at how so many people could work together and produce such an incompetent, awful result.  If you're going to watch this, get drunk first, or maybe smoke a whole bagful of crack instead.  It'll help things like this scene make some kind of sense:

.5 / 5 - TV

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