The Judge Dredd comic book occupies much the same place in my pop culture landscape as Doctor Who: a beloved British property of which I am only tangentially aware. So I have no dog in the fight over whether the 1995 Stallone vehicle is a good or bad depiction of a revered character who probably knows a crumpet from a biscuit. All I know is that it’s a shitty movie.
Tagline: In the future, one man is the law
More Accurate Tagline: The team up only 1995 could give us: Stallone and Schneider!
Guilty Party: Though we’re at the tail end of Stallone’s heyday, he still could get a movie greenlit based on little more than a glower and a few garbled vowels. It’s safe to say nothing happened on this movie set without Stallone’s at least tacit approval, so he’s at fault here.
Synopsis: We start with an opening crawl, which is never a good sign. It’s even a worse sign when that crawl has a narrator, like the filmmakers don’t even trust the audience to be able to read. And before you start complaining that they’re ripping off Star Wars, they hired James Earl Jones to read them. So they’re pretty much coming right out and saying it.
Anyway, it’s some kind of apocalypse, everyone lives in Mega Cities (exactly what they sound like), crime is slightly less rampant than in a Death Wish movie, and to combat it, there are people who combine the roles of beat cop, judge, jury, executioner, and catchphrase tester all in one. These are the judges, and the most notorious of all of them is Judge Dredd (Stallone).
Of course, the movie doesn’t open with him. No, it’s 1995, and Hollywood was still under the mistaken impression we wanted to see Rob Schneider because we might have chuckled once at his Copy Guy character on SNL. He’s a recently paroled petty criminal — sort of an all-purpose hacker tech-guy — and while trying to get to his terrifying new housing, he gets caught up in a militarized riot let by James Remar of all people.
Dredd shows up and murders the living shit out of Remar, Remar’s gang, and anyone in the vicinity, then arrests Schneider for hiding out inside a recycled food robot. It’s a dick move.
Right around this time, Rico (Armand Assante doing a weird late-period Marlon Brando impression) escapes from superjail somehow. Turns out he’s a judge and he instantly gets his old gear and a giant robot from a pawn shop. That’s a really good pawn shop. Dredd also gets upset when he mentions to Judge Hershey (Diane Lane in her ‘90s career slump, between when she was ridiculously hot in the ‘80s and ridiculously hot for her age from the ‘00s until she dies) that he had a friend once and “judged him.” That line is delivered in a locker room and probably wasn’t supposed to come off as super, duper gay, but there you go.
Dredd gets framed for killing a journalist (played by the non-Busey bad guy in Lethal Weapon), and gets sentenced to prison only after his mentor, Max Von Sydow pulls some strings to commute the execution. For his trouble, Von Sydow gets exiled to the wasteland to teach mutant hillbillies the magic of zoning ordinances.
On the way to prison (they’re on Con Air from Con Air, and nothing will convince me otherwise), Dredd gets seated right next to Schneider. What are the odds? The mutant hillbillies — thought I was joking about those, huh? — shoot the fucking plane down and Dredd and Schneider get taken to the hillbilly lair to be eaten. This is baffling, because the plane is stuffed with already-cooked dead guys and we later learn the pilot was even alive, but the hillbillies take the only two people on the plane who weren’t grievously wounded.
So, it’s kind of their own fault when they get killed. Max Von Sydow shows up just long enough to help out before he dies. He confesses that Dredd was part of a cloning experiment called the Janus Project to make super-judges. Rico, Dredd’s best friend who he judged (he judged him so hard, and even though he knew it was wrong it felt so right), was the other one. Which explains why both actors are wearing weird blue contact lenses, only not really.
Meanwhile, back in Mega City 1, Hershey uncovers this mystery as well, while Rico and his patron Jurgen Prochnow, assassinate judges as part of a coup. Rico and his new assistant Joan Chen (only there so Hershey will have a woman to fight in the finale), are bringing back Janus! Which is a room full of frozen guys. What the fuck is with ‘90s Stallone movies and rooms of frozen guys?
Anyway, Dredd and Schneider break back into Mega City 1, hook up with Hershey, and confront Rico at his lab. It’s in the Statue of Liberty because why not? There’s a big fight. The heroes are triumphant. Dredd, now reinstated, kisses Hershey and wanders off to be the law.
Life-Changing Subtext: Thank goodness, fascism is saved!
Defining Quote: “I knew you’d say that.” Dredd says this so many times that it qualifies as a catchphrase, but without being particularly catchy. It’s like he hacked linguistics just to be a smug asshole.
Standout Performance: While Lane, Prochnow, and Von Sydow are all pros who can invest even the silliest line with a modicum of gravitas, they aren’t the standout here. No, that’s Armand Assante, who fucking gets it. He took one look at the script, nodded to himself, and probably even muttered, “Game on.” He then proceeds to deliver the most gleefully unhinged performance possible. He’s so hammy, I’m convinced he had an on-set baster.
What’s Wrong: Did you see that plot? Jesus Christ. L.A. Confidential had a more direct throughline.
Flash of Competence: The best parts of the movie are generally due to the time in which it was made. There’s actual blood, which feels like such a revelation. The FX are all practical, and though it leads to a flying motorcycle chase that looked bad at the time and looks worse now, there’s some charm to it.
Best Scenes: The hillbillies bear some mentioning. One of them is a giant mutant with one arm and a dial on his head. The dial controls his aggression or something. This seems like a terrible idea. It’s not password protected. There’s not even a sneeze guard. I feel like this thing must have led to more than one argument in the clan over the dinner table/murder room.
The recycled food robot is a legitimately good gag. It trundles down the hallway extolling the inhabitants of the slum to eat recycled food, with gems like, “it’s good for the environment and okay for you!” What’s recycled food? Probably best not to dwell.
Transcendent Moment: I singled out Assante’s performance, and there is a moment where he discovers an entirely new way to pronounce “law.” He and Stallone go back and forth, and Stallone hits him with, “You betrayed the law!” Assante’s line on the script would have read merely, “Law.” Perhaps “Law!” Instead, he invents a brand new vowel, and adds about six extra syllables. After he delivered that line, every walrus in the world showed up on the sound stage thinking they had a new king.
Judge Dredd is principally interesting these days as a look into a time before we understood how comic book movies should be made. Of course, if you’re Warner Brothers, that time is today.