The Originals: ‘Judge Dredd’ Deserves a Serious Yet Still-Relevant Remake

By  · Published on September 16th, 2012

If ever there was proof remakes are worthwhile, it’s the 1995 adaptation of Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone. Neither a critical nor a box office success, the movie would probably be forgotten entirely if it weren’t for the fact that it’s based on a very popular comic strip. In the UK, anyway. Also, as much as there is to dismiss about the movie, it has some good ideas that aren’t necessarily taken from the source material. Basically, it’s a movie that could be remolded into a very fine film.

That said, the upcoming Dredd 3D doesn’t appear to be a remake so much as another attempt to mine a movie out of the character, which made its debut in the pages of 2000 AD in 1977. Not even the title is the same. Nevertheless, this isn’t simply an umpteenth adaptation of Romeo and Juliet or Anna Karenina. With comic-based movies we think of the franchise. While The Dark Knight is not exactly a remake of the 1989 Batman, there’s a tendency for people to be conscious of all movies involving the Caped Crusader, as a unified property. And we can’t rightly think about Dredd 3D without considering its predecessor, either.

Two and a half years ago, Brian revisited the earlier version with a thorough look at its pros and cons for a Junkfood Cinema column. So, there’s no need to redo that, and I don’t mean to. What I mean to do is address the movie in the context of its being remade (or re-adapted, as it were). This does require us to highlight some favorable things that could be retained and some mistakes that we hope the new movie has learned from.

First, let’s get the whole Rob Schneider issue out of the way. The 1990s were an unfortunate period for the action genre with regards to a dependency on comic relief sidekicks. Looking back (and I just watched Judge Dredd for the first time, having ignored it upon initial release), this particular actor seems even more like a terrible choice. But let’s not forget this was before he’d had a chance to really ruin his reputation. Besides, a year prior, True Lies was a huge hit in spite of co-starring Tom Arnold, and at the time I definitely would have had money on the young SNL player over the tabloid-staple who had only gotten where he was for marrying a sitcom star.

Frankly, Schneider is not the worst thing about Judge Dredd, even if he gives it a Police Academy feel with his character being equal parts Sweetchuck and Zed (had there been a Judge Dredd 2, Schneider would have been made a rookie judge). It’s also reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s part in the Lethal Weapon movies, which is interesting since Pesci was Stallone’s first choice. But it’s probably for the best that his parallel in Dredd 3D appears to be a non-comical badass in custody played by The Wire’s Wood Harris.

The worst thing is the soulless, cartoonish direction from Danny Cannon, who is fortunately now where he belongs helming television episodes. Not that there’s a whole lot to be expected of Dredd 3D’s Pete Travis, whose best known work is the awfully repetitive Vantage Point. Runner up for faults, to my surprise, is the score by Back to the Future theme composer Alan Silvestri (who had just received his first Oscar nod for Forrest Gump). Actually, it’s not so much that his music is bad but that his punchy, fanfare-style score is unfortunate in emphasizing an already overly jaunty tone. They might as well have hired Hoyt Curtin.

At the same time, in theory it makes sense to have such a courtly score for a movie that, at its best, deals with ideas of justice and the rigid interpretation of law and evidence of guilt. You’ve got a hero without emotion, who takes only reason into consideration when judging alleged criminals, and he ends up wrongfully convicted through the same process he trusts and believes in. Given that the script was written during an increasingly critical era for the American justice system, with the then-recently founded Innocence Project and, on the other side, continuing instances in which authority figures were being acquitted in spite of clear abuses of power.

Duality within a theme is always appreciated in the dumbest of blockbuster entertainments, and one possible disappointment with Dredd 3D is that it won’t involve the comic-based character Rico Dredd (Armand Assante), an inverse mirror figure to Stallone’s title role, and a Twins-like instance of the balanced-out fraternal split (of course the good brother/evil brother is a far more ancient concept than Twins). Both are void of emotion, yet Stallone’s Joseph Dredd ended up on the side of upholding the law with scientific logic, making him the exemplary judge and jury, while Rico fell to the ways of heartless greed and immorality that made him the perfect criminal.

And that their climactic fight is inside the head of the Statue of Liberty is a nice touch, albeit a very blunt one. The script, by Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard; The Flintstones) and William Wisher, Jr. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), from a story by Wisher and Michael De Luca (In the Mouth of Madness), and based on the comics of John Wagner (also A History of Violence) and Carlos Ezquerra, is far from subtlety or seriousness. Through Schneider, there’s an awful gay-rape joke and a peed his pants joke that really bring the film’s intelligence level below what was already on the verge of being completely unacceptable.

The big shocker, though, is how many moments there are in the film where Dredd is rescued by an unseen helper who takes out the threat, or some other similar-minded instance of coincidental favor or luck. There are a lot. A ton, even. It had to be apparent to the writers, especially when a particular fight scene has one character after another being shot or stabbed by an obscured person whose shot or blade comes towards the screen from behind the victim (these kills would have been perfectly suited for a gratuitous 3D movie). And the unseen character is usually a newly and suddenly arrived person or creature who comes out of nowhere.

Judge Dredd is not the terrible piece of garbage I anticipated after 17 years of hearing only of its negative aspects. It was just unfortunately made at a time when action stars like Stallone were falling out of favor, when Paul Verhoeven’s blend of camp and violence were terribly miscalculated by producers aiming to replicate that R-rated but fun style of RoboCop and Total Recall, and when brilliant production design was sadly clashing with awkward computer-generated effects.

From what I can tell, aside from the fact that it’s in 3D, the new Dredd movie doesn’t seem to be trying too hard, and that could actually be good or bad. With a script from Alex Garland (28 Days Later…; Never Let Me Go), it may be smarter and less jokey, but with a lead (Karl Urban) who never takes off his helmet, will it have as much character as the original? We’ll see this Friday.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.