Film * Danny Cannon * I AM THE LAW * 1995
I guess I finally got around to seeing this thing. When this came out, and I was the target demographic at sixteen, it seemed like a lock. True, I’ve always preferred Schwarzenegger in my idiot explosion movies, but by ’95 Demolition Man was in heavy rotation. Yet for whatever reason, I skipped Judge Dredd in the theater. Then I skipped it at the 2nd run movie house, where I saw pretty much anything and everything because it was a block from my house and cost three dollars for a double feature. Then I never bothered to rent it. Or stream it. Then I found myself scrolling through all of the streaming services and realizing it was either this, or one of those weird super-low-budget apocalyptic flicks that no one’s ever even heard of. Judge Dredd it is.
I realize that I should like this. There’s all kinds elements on display here that I enjoy. Endless nightmare megalopolis? Check. Clear income-inequality driven chaos? Check. Ruthless authoritarian rule? Check. Big old terrifying wasteland? Oh you know that’s a check. So yes, the setup here is great. Also, if the very opening of the movie is a clue, this is based on a comic series. I don’t know nothin’ about that, but at the very least the comics provide a nice backdrop for the film. Also, I bet this world looked awesome on screen in 1995. Actually, the visual effects kind of hold up. For a 22 year old sci-fi movie, Judge Dredd isn’t an embarrassment. In this area, at least.
So here’s the setup. You’ve got your aforementioned megalopolis (with the stunningly creative name “Mega City 1,” and goes along with “Mega City 2” and “Texas City.” I wish I were kidding), which houses most of humanity. Outside the Blade Runner-esque city, you’ve got your wasteland. Inside, you’ve got 60 million people crammed together with their flying cars and neon sex shops. Obviously, tensions run high and there’s lots of crime and violence. To combat this, the ruling class created a more efficient means of law enforcement, the Judges. These guys are basically cops with the authority to perform instant trials and render sentences on the spot. So, like, if you double park too many times, Sylvester Stallone can roll up and explode your car with a grenade launcher and it’s okay. Actually that scene is pretty great.
Yet even with these street Judges rolling around on their hoverbikes, dressed up in their Versace codpieces (again, I’m not making that up), shooting whoever they deem guilty, crime and violence are out of control. So the Judge oversight committee, I’m sure it has a proper name but whatever, creates a secret program to genetically engineer super-Judges or something. One of these, Rico, goes rogue and kills a bunch of people and is jailed. The program is buried, and the evidence of the murders is covered up. Then Rico escapes with the help of some wiener bureaucrat who wants to resurrect said super-Judge program, and then they frame Judge Dredd so they can clear some space for themselves to take over the Mega City. Oh, and Rob Schneider is there.
Look, this isn’t a good movie. Neither is Demolition Man, but that one gets a pass from me largely because of nostalgia. If you have warm, nostalgic feelings for this movie, I get it. I don’t, so mostly it’s just a significantly flawed execution of a cool initial idea. Stallone plays the same fucking character as he does in every action movie he’s ever been in. Well, in that he’s super stoic and yells a lot. I guess in most of his dumb movies (like the aforementioned Demolition Man, or something like Cobra) he’s the righteous upright guy who does what is necessary to do the right thing. Here, he’s still the righteous upright guy, but strictly follows the letter of the law. He’s Lawful Good instead of Chaotic Good, even though he’s still playing the same exact dude. The point is, by the time we get to Judge Dredd, that shtick is tiresome.
Speaking of tiresome, remember Rob Schneider? The film actually begins with his character, who is a weenie that I guess does computer stuff? By which I mean he pokes at wires until he takes the machine over. “Hacking” in this movie is essentially hotwiring electronics, which is strange. Anyway, he’s the comic relief throughout most of the film, which means Judge Dredd has no idea what kind of tone it wants to maintain, so instead it just whipsaws all over the place. You get one scene of just horrific abuse of authoritarian power, then dour old Stallone yells about THE LAW, and then the lady Judge shows up to gently chastise him, then Schneider leans in with a quip that barely constitutes a quip, and by the end I was only surprised there was no mention of making copies.
It’s this uncertainty of tone that kills any momentum Judge Dredd may have had. It’s a misunderstanding of what kind of movie they were making, I think. Not to harp on this comparison, but Demolition Man knew it was ridiculous and silly. True, it helps when your movie has Sandra Bullock and Wesley Snipes and Denis Leary, but it also helps that they were all on the same page. They knew how stupid their movie was, and hammed it up in an appropriate manner befitting the film. Here, nobody knows what to do. The villain isn’t fun, not even a little bit. He’s just a roided-out psycho, to the point where there’s very little difference between him and Stallone. The lady-Judge is fine, but has no real sense of humor. At some point, Jocelyn Packard from Twin Peaks shows up as an evil doctor, only to get beat up by the lady-Judge. This just illustrates that all of the secondary characters are flat and pointless, Schneider most of all.
Then you get to the end, and it’s like what is Judge Dredd even trying to say? There is absolutely zero commentary on the society that has been on display here. The Judge oversight committee is overtaken by corruption, a huge swath of Judges have been outright murdered and it is stated plainly that there are not and cannot be enough to hold crime in check. Yet here comes Dredd who wrecks up everyone’s shit, evil is punished and the status quo is restored. Except the status quo is terrible! And isn’t actually the status quo at all, considering all the Judges are dead. That problem is never addressed, so the city is doomed I guess. On a personal level, Dredd learns nothing, even though the entire film sets up the scenario where Dredd learns to be less of a dick about THE LAW. Nope! He doesn’t even apologize to Schneider’s character, although to be fair, Schneider should be apologizing to us, the audience. Of course Dredd gets the girl, even though she’s hypercritical of him throughout, rightfully so, and Dredd shows no inclination of changing. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter, the Mega City is going to collapse into chaos and ruin soon enough anyway.