Imagine Sylvester Stallone in tight leather, a giant gold codpiece and a massive gun and you’ll think instantly of the cinematic accident that is Judge Dredd. What other film features Stallone and the late Ian Dury in the same movie? Judge Dredd is director Danny Cannon’s 1995 epic that has all this and Rob Schneider generally hanging around like a pair of pants you shat yourself in once after taking too much MDMA, and you keep forgetting to throw out.
Based upon the 2000AD strip created by John Wagner and Carlos Esquerra, Judge Dredd looks utterly magnificent. The art design and sets are exquisite – and then there’s Hammerstein, the ABC Warrior robot that was a working robot partly built by music video director Chris Cunningham, who also did the makeup on Mean Machine. Take out Stallone and the dreadful script and you’ve got a Dredd film that is a labour of love, as opposed to a generic SF/action film where gruff men growl at the camera while shooting things, or women in tight leather hitting each other up in slow motion to record every jiggle as they sweat.
And there’s Judge Dredd’s problem. The production crew were full of people who’d grown up in the UK loving 2000AD and couldn’t believe they had a chance to work on a Dredd film, but both Stallone and the writers saw this as a Stallone actioner. As with the majority of Stallone vehicles, the star had his own ideas in mind – ideas that didn’t necessarily correspond with the original vision and script, and he was able to exert his power and demanded changes. The disputes between the film’s director Danny Cannon and Sly were so demoralizing that it discouraged Cannon from ever working A-list actors ever again (unless you count Ray Liotta, but you don’t do you?). He also claimed that the final version of the film was completely different from the script, due to Stallone’s creative meddling.
In 2008, Stallone himself acknowledged that the film was a missed opportunity. When speaking at a press conference to promote Rambo, he said: “I think the biggest mistake I ever made was with the sloppy handling of Judge Dredd. I thought that could have been a fantastic, nihilistic, interesting vision of the future – judge, jury and executioner. That really bothered me a great deal.” At the time, Stallone felt like it would work better as an action comedy, as the original script was everything he wanted it to be in the aforementioned quote. Damn you, Sly. Foresight was never your specialty.
The plot is lifted from a number of classic Dredd strips such as the Cursed Earth, but it’s a tedious mess from the moment Stallone takes the helmet off and the film becomes a 2000AD action movie starring Sylvester Stallone. The first five or so minutes aren’t actually bad, and for a fleeting second Stallone feels like a good Dredd. However as soon as the helmet comes off, the film kicks the audience out of the world it’s tried to build up in the opening scene. By the time Stallone inherit comedy sidekick and annoying dick, Rob Schneider appears, the sense of deflation is overwhelming, which is exactly what happened when I first saw it in a packed cinema in Leicester full of fans in 1995. If you think Batman vs, Superman (2016) was savaged by fans and critics, then go back and look at the reaction to Judge Dredd at the time. It is by all standards a terrible film.
But. It’s also fun in places. It’s extraordinarily cheesy in that ‘’I don’t mind watching it on a wet Tuesday night when it’s on Five’’ way, but the production design is the real treat here. That’s the real reason to see this, as it’s glorious. Forget about the giant gold codpiece, Rob fucking Schneider, a script so bad that at times nothing makes sense, and of course Stallone at times lumbering around like a giant bag of cat litter; it looks lovely. So when you next watch this look past Stallone, study the background and you’ll see a great Dredd film. Just try to ignore everything in the foreground.