Monday, September 7, 2015

(Not)Love Actually: Judge Dredd

Apparently Time Warner customers get Showtime for a free preview this summer, flipping through listings, none other than Judge Dredd was on! This was one of my favorite films growing up after seeing it for a buck at the local second run theater. The scope of the future, the design and brutal violence all made for an excellent 90's sci-fi action flick. Little did I know back then that Dredd was a bit of a flop, unloved by critics and despised by fans of the source material while audiences more or less weren't interested. Based on the cult British comic book that started in 1977, Judge Dredd takes place in an over crowded, post WW III future where millions cram into Mega Cities while the desolate land in between is known as the Cursed Earth. Street Judges are given the power of Judge, Jury and Executioner as they can arrest, convict, sentence and execute criminals on the spot. Armed with a Lawgiver pistol that is DNA coded and fires six kinds of ammo, Judge Dredd sports a helmet he never removes along with shoulder pads and armor as he rides a machine gun equipped Lawmaster motorcycle.

While the comic books never gained the mass appeal of a Batman or Spider-Man in the states, producer Charles M. Lippincott thought Dredd could make for a futuristic version of Dirty Harry and in 1983, secured the rights. Working with independent producer Edward R. Pressman (Conan the Barbarian), the duo set out to find scribes for the film. A small army of writers came and went, including Ed Neumeier (Robocop), Tim Hunter and James Crumley, comic book maestro Howard Chaykin, William Wisher (Terminator 2) and Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard). 1987's law enforcement-satire-western hit Robocop drew much of it's inspiration from Dredd while the project continued to languish. Arnold Schwarzenegger was rumored to be interested but it would be his then rival Sylvester Stallone that gave the project the necessary star wattage to push it closer to production. Cinergi, the company of former Carolco partner Andrew G. Vajna, stepped up to co-finance with distribution coming from Disney's Hollywood Pictures. 27 year old Danny Cannon won the director's job through a mix of his impressive love and knowledge of Dredd, vision of the film and heat from debut film The Young Americans.

Budgeted at a rumored $70 million bucks, Judge Dredd began shooting in England on giant street, prison and the Statue of Liberty sets while utilizing miniatures, matte paintings and CGI. With no Cinergi production executives on set, the young director clashed with star Stallone over the tone of the film which had already been targeted for a PG-13 rating and a Burger King toy-in promotion. Cannon wanted to keep the film serious and violent like the comics while Stallone aimed for an action tale with morality, humor and fun. The film would be given an X rating before downgraded to an R, losing the fast food and toy deals while spurring lawsuits from angry spurned partners in the process. The flick opens with comic book panels filling the screen as we meet freshly released hacker Fergie (Rob Schnieder) as he's dropped off at his new home, Heavenly Haven, a misnamed hell hole filled with gun toting squatters involved in a violent block war. Stallone's Judge Dredd takes out the bad guys with extreme prejudice and sends Fergie back to prison for violating his parole while trying to save his own ass. Seemingly emotionless, Dredd is the most feared Judge on the street and a big problem for Judge Council member Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow) who has more nefarious plans for the Halls of Justice. With manpower in short supply and faced with a growing population, Griffin is all about harsher punishment for lesser crimes. To tip society's scale, Griffin has disgraced former Judge Rico (Armand Assante) freed from prison in order to start a war on the streets.

Like I said, Judge Dredd is great. You're thrown into the flick with Alan Silvestri's big orchestral score, James Earl Jones' narration and a vision of the future that is at once grimy, giant and violent. The film's sense of humor is established early on with memorable gags like an automated food serving droid and Dredd blowing up a car to punish the driver. Sets and costumes are awesome with the city streets crowded, cramped and going high into the sky with neon while Dredd's costume looks straight out of the comic book with a little help from Gianni Versace. The look of the film is immense, detailed and very expensive looking. There's also a giant, menacing mechanical robot bodyguard done practically versus CGI. While many fans were upset Dredd takes off his helmet 17 minutes in, as a non-reader, I was fine with it and let's not forget, the film wouldn't have been made without Stallone's famous mug. The Italian Stallion is solid as Dredd, playing both shouting and over the top while quiet, sad and reserved as he lives in constant solitude and judged his only friend Rico while delivering memorable lines like "I AM THE LAW!" and "I KNEW YOU'D SAY THAT!" with action hero relish. Diane Lane is smart and spunky as love interest and fellow Judge Hershey while Schneider gets a little more screen time than he did in Stallone's previous sci-fi flick Demolition Man as the comedic relief sidekick. The film's cast is deep and excellently filled with Armand Assante, Jurgen Prochnow, Max von Sydow, Joan Chen and James Remar.

The action is both big and close quartered with highlights including Dredd pacifying two rooms filled with heavily armed thugs using Rapid Fire, Grenade, Double Whammy and Armor Piercing shots, a showdown with mutated thugs in the scorched Earth wasteland, a flying motorbikes chase through the skies of the city and a fight on top of the Statue of Liberty. The motorbike chase scene is one I've always remembered since seeing the film nearly 20 years ago as it just felt like a roller coaster and the only thing I can think to compare it to is the speeder bike chase from Return of the Jedi. Sadly all of this would not be enough to save the film upon release on June 30th in 1995. It's $12.2 million take would only be good enough for # 5 behind Apollo 13, Pocahontas, Batman Forever and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers on it's way to a not great $34.6 mil take. Overseas the film would gross an additional $78 million. While Stallone had scored with a string of R rated thrillers like Cliffhanger, Demolition Man and The Specialist, Judge Dredd was supposed to be a kinder, gentler film meant to capture a young audience. The same gambit did not work for his brothers in arms Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme with family friendly fare The Last Action Hero and Street Fighter. Having just come back a bit from the under performing Rocky V, Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Stallone would struggle as high profile and big budget films Assassins and Daylight would disappoint at the U.S. box office.

Director Danny Cannon publicly stated he'd never work with a big star again after clashing with Stallone and found solace in television with credits on CSI, Nikita and Gotham. The decade plus journey from panels to screen would mark Charles M. Lippencott's final producing credit to date while writer William Wisher moved on to another troubled but enjoyable flick, viking epic The 13th Warrior. Steven E. de Souza would reteam with Jean-Claude Van Damme for 1998's Knock Off before guiding Tomb Raider sequel, The Cradle of Life. Years after Dredd's release, de Souza would be blamed for writing an R rated Disney film after Danny Cannon delivered a such a violent piece that it lost promotional deals for toy and fast food tie-ins. In 2012, a medium budget, gritty, more faithful take on the character hit theaters with Karl Urban sporting the helmet as Dredd. Fans and critics liked the film more than Stallone's version but the flick landed with a thud opening weekend with an anemic take of $6.3 million on it's way to a $13 million total and worldwide gross of $35 million, woof! Fans might have gotten the Dredd they always wanted but I found the new flick to be boring, self serious, cheap looking and used way too much CGI and slow motion. Guess that just shows you how unknown the character is and partially validates the original's star driven attempt. Until next time, Judge this!

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