Judge Dredd (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Some two decades ago, Sylvester Stallone actually did a little acting in a movie called Rocky. Since then, he's pretty much strutted his way through film after film, grunting convincingly and occasionally uttering a line or two of dialogue. He probably has more range than Steven Seagal, but that's not saying much. First Blood, Cliffhanger, and The Specialist have been box office successes, and now Stallone carries an impossibly large price tag. His latest, Judge Dredd, based on a popular British comic book, comes across pretty much as a retread of Demolition Man, right down to the basic quality of the production.

Judge Dredd has a serious tone problem. Sometimes, it's rather amusing, but it's impossible to decide whether this is accidental or on purpose. Is the director playing with the audience or is the picture an exercise in campy seriousness that would make Ed Wood smile? There are few clues. Often, Judge Dredd appears to be a parody, but my guess is that Danny Cannon was aiming for an action/adventure flick with a humorous edge.

At least visually, this film aspires to be Blade Runner, but aspirations are all it has. Ridley Scott's science fiction classic gave a unique visual look to the future. Dredd's Mega-City One (formerly New York) is a glitzy replication. In fact, just about everything in this silly, sub-par science fiction farce is derivative. For example, there's an air speeder chase lifted directly from Return of the Jedi, and Dredd is littered with nods to Robocop. Those hoping for a coherent story would do better to stay away. When the film's narrative makes sense, it's only because of hard-to-swallow contrivances.

It's the twenty-second century on Earth (now called "The Cursed Earth", as James Earl Jones informs us in an introductory monologue), and crime is out of control. A new breed of law enforcement officer has been born. With the power to apprehend, convict, and carry out sentences, the Judges have become rightfully feared. Dredd (Stallone -- who else?) is the best of the bunch. Emotionless and rigidly devoted to the Law, he doesn't cut anyone any breaks, not even a petty crook just trying to save his own life (Rob Schneider). Then the tables are turned. Dredd is framed for murder and, when his chosen defense counselor, Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), can't contradict some DNA evidence (no, this isn't the O.J. Simpson trial), he is sent to prison. And, while Dredd is on his way up the river, an irredeemably vicious ex-Judge, Rico (Armand Assante), returns to Mega-City One to wreak havoc.

Performance-wise, there isn't much that's memorable here. Stallone is Stallone; need more be said? Diane Lane is pretty bland, and she and her beefy co-star don't threaten to start any fires with their sparkless relationship. Rob Schneider is fitfully funny as the comic relief, but that's his job. Armand Assante seems to be having a whale of a good time, though. Like any actor playing a solid, over-the-top villain, he's fun to watch. Respected thespians like Max von Sydow and Jurgen Prochnow have relatively brief appearances. And Joan Chen again wins the "most underused performer of the film" award.

In the Star Wars movies, we had "May the Force be with you." Schwarzenegger is known for saying "I'll be back." The tag line for Judge Dredd appears to be "I knew you'd say that." Catchy, huh? Of course, all the "best" lines go to Stallone, and he half-bellows, half-grunts them in typical fashion. These include: "I AM the Law!" and the Spock-like "Emotions: there ought to be a law against them." Now, we're not meant to take this sort of dialogue seriously, are we?

The problem is, no matter what you expect from , Judge Dredd, you're likely to laugh at it more often than with it. It is frequently diverting, but this is entertainment of the lowest level. Other comic book characters (most notably Superman and Batman) have weathered the transition to live action far better. Dredd is pure Stallone and, irrespective of all the sci-fi trappings, that statement is probably all that's needed to define exactly what kind of movie this is.

Judge Dredd (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1995-06-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1