The character of Judge Dredd that appears in the 1995 adaptation from director Danny Cannon and starring Sylvester Stallone, then later in the more faithful 2012 film with Karl Urban, is based on a British comic strip first produced in the late 1970s. Created in 1977 by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, the comic strip came to satirize the conservative populism of UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her peak years in office in the mid-1980s. As co-creator John Wagner wrote in a blog, “This was back in the days of Dirty Harry, and with Thatcher on the rise there was a right-wing current in British politics which helped inspire Judge Dredd.”
With this context in mind, analyzing Judge Dredd through the lens of action film tropes, in particular one of the most popular tropes, that of the car chase, elucidates on the character and its politics. The car chase can reveal a significant amount about the tone, ideas, and even symbolism of a character. How the character relates to his vehicle can also convey a lot of information about the film’s interpretation of masculinity, as the car or motorcycle have become iconic symbols of ruggedness and a patriarchal assertion of traditional values. This is evident in how the two cinematic adaptations of the character approach his signature vehicle – known as the Lawmaster – and how it is translated in a car chase sequence.
The 1995 film adaptation of the character abandoned all political and social commentary of the original comic book for only the most basic decorative aspects of the comic strip. The look of the Lawmaster motorcycles in the Stallone version might be more accurate to the visuals of the original comic strip, but how the chase sequence is carried betrays a rather conventional approach to action filmmaking. The satirical bite of the original comic strip is withered away by one-liners and a character who is more in line with Stallone’s approved action hero persona than the comic book. The Lawmaster in Judge Dredd 95 ignores any sense of story logic and disregards any faithfulness to the source material.
By contrast the 2012 version dramatically alters the look of the Lawmaster, presenting a much sleeker and more realistic machine than presented in the original comic book, but adheres closer to the tone of that original comic book. The opening scene of the Lawmaster weaving in and out of the streets, which looks of urban decay and chaos, better reflects the terrifying vision promised in the opening exposition monologue of both films.
Judge Dredd (1995)
Released long before comic book films dominated the theaters, Judge Dredd 95 translated the unconventional science fiction comic strip into a more accessible mainstream superhero film. Essentially, main actor Sylvester Stallone reworked the titular character to accommodate more of his own typical action film persona. As such Judge Dredd 95 follows a rather conventional action film plot that involves Judge Dredd being framed for murder by his clone brother Rico (Armande Assante) and having to go on the run from his former colleagues. Events lead up to a chase involving the Lawmaster motorcycles, his comic relief sidekick Fergie (Rob Schneider, who never shuts up during the chase, or even the movie), and plenty of explosions. Essentially Judge Dredd 95 positions the main character of Judge Dredd as a wrongly accused individual on the run from the very system he supported, causing the audience to reflexively identify and even sympathize with his plight. Judge Dredd is, in effect, being positioned as the hero, negating any satirical distance of the original comic book because the audience will identify and root for the underdog. Judge Dredd 95 reverses the de-romanticized image of the blindly obedient police officer apparent in the original comic book with a heroic, if maverick, figure of hero worship.
The Lawmaster chase sequence in Judge Dredd 95 occurs near the end of the film, following the typical action film format of having the film culminate in an audience-pleasing spectacle. The sequence begins with Judge Dredd shooting down two judges as he runs from the law, having now being convicted of murder. This action of killing his former colleagues immediately distances Judge Dredd from his comic book counterpart and is now unrecognizable as anything except a standard Stallone protagonist. Judge Dredd’s primary character trait is that he is a devoutly fascist believer in the order of the law, to the point where he is dangerously short-sighted and lacks the comprehension of addressing long-term consequences and systemic problems. Judge Dredd only sees and believes in what is immediately apparent to him, so having him begin a chase sequence with murder, and continue on a path that will see the death of even more former colleagues at his hands – all in service of his own exoneration from being framed by Judge Rico – presumes a more typical Stallone mentality than anything presented in print.
The remaining sequence is a fairly conventional action film chase that relies heavily on explosions and close calls. Judge Dredd blasts through a concrete wall with a stolen Lawmaster and attempts to fly out of a high-rise building, as supposedly the Lawmasters can fly in this cinematic iteration. Instead the Lawmaster malfunctions, causing it to rapidly descend until Judge Dredd manages to boot it back up just moments before it would have crashed. Because the Lawmasters can fly in this iteration, the scene necessitates a green screen approach where the actors perform on a stationary vehicle, moving on a rotating gimbal, while a special effects team fills in the background at a later point. As Tico Romao observes, “car chases that film actors in actual moving vehicles, or employ special effects that yield such an impression, are credible with respect to the spectator’s standards of perceptual realism.” Judge Dredd 95 does not attempt this realistic approach, while the later adaptation Dredd does fulfill this idea of perceptual realism more effectively. The result is that the Stallone version is deliberately establishing the science fiction and spectacle aspects of the character in relation to the film, abandoning any pretense of politics or realism – in any regard – for pure entertainment value.
The aerial chase sequence also contributes another significant thematic problem with Judge Dredd 95’s depiction of the character in that it removes Judge Dredd from the streets. Martin Barker and Kate Brooks address this problem in their article on the Stallone film, noting “Too much of the latter half of the film takes place within such ‘corridors of power’: above the heads of the Megacity masses both thematically and filmically. The camera roams down tunnels and enters womb-like chambers within the hall of justice; the chase sequence takes place in the air, at times resembling a computer game.” Barker and Brooks, writing this in 1995, have identified how the film ignores the original comic book’s concerns with how a few selected authority figures control a vast urban sprawl of gang warfare and how this dystopian system negatively affects the citizens.
Adding even more to the action film clichés, Judge Dredd is accompanied by a comedic relief sidekick named Fergie (Rob Schneider). Fergie annoyingly yelps snarky lines, such as “You’re going to want to wash the seat after we get off.” This line, designed for audience laughter, and followed by a typical Stallone grunt, illustrates another fundamental difference between the comic strip and the film. Judge Dredd was filled with humour, but the effect was of a satirical nature with a pointed political purpose. The humour in this adaptation is interchangeable with any other stereotypical action film of the 1990s, and indeed the ‘hard-body film.’ This dynamic between Judge Dredd and Fergie is rooted in the action film approach of the ‘buddy’ comedy that was prevalent in the 1980s. Ignoring that Judge Dredd is so immersed in the system, often pathologically blind to any alternatives – that as a character he finds it difficult to relate to anyone on any basis other than as professional colleagues or potential criminals – this introduction of slapstick humor / quasi-friendship in Judge Dredd and the contrast between the gruff Judge Dredd and the weak but sarcastic sidekick Fergie, only undercuts the absolute brutalism of the world that Judge Dredd inhabits.
From there, the viewer is treated to the requisite number of explosions and special effects as fellow judges chase him in an aerial Lawmaster sequence. Inexplicably, Judge Dredd hands known criminal Fergie a shotgun that he uses to blast away at the judges, who are, after all, only doing their duty, even joyously exclaiming “Nice!” at the death of a judge by Fergie. Judge Dredd continues his callous disregard for life and the slaughter of his former colleagues. There are, of course, more explosions and plenty of dramatic near misses that build on the action and tension. In Dredd the callous disregard for life is built into the world and into the character, whereas in the Stallone film it is merely played off as material for a joke or a one-liner. Judge Dredd in the Stallone version is brutally conditioned to not care about the lives of the citizens, or at least not over the concerns of law and order (as it is in the 2012 adaptation) but simply goes about murdering fellow judges (for which he is exonerated from at the film’s epilogue) because that is the convention of the action hero. The other judges are merely disposable individuals whose sole function is to be cannon fodder for our ‘heroic’ protagonist.
Judge Dredd even throws a judge off his Lawmaster, flinging the former colleague to his death, while offering up a typical Stallone one-liner: “This is where you get off, creep!” Not only is it out of character for Judge Dredd to actually enjoy the blatant murder of a fellow judge doing his proper duty, but he evokes a classic line from the comic strip. Creep is a common phrase from Judge Dredd, highlighting his disdain for criminals, whom he views as lesser than himself. In a world where almost everything is a crime, this leads to an undercurrent of anger and frustration as Judge Dredd soon becomes resentful of the populace itself, necessitating the use of creep on far too many occasions. In this adaptation the word creep is reduced from its socio-political meaning to another bit of macho posturing.
The end result of this Lawmaster chase sequence is that it is geared towards a rather predictable formula intended for a summer blockbuster type of status, but the inherent problem is that the subject matter and tone of Judge Dredd as a science fiction world is far too bizarre to retrofit into a classic action hero/superhero model. In the end, the film just borrows plot elements and the basic features of the comic book and crams a typical Stallone action formula into it to appease summer blockbuster audiences. Nowhere is this more evident than in how the two properties approach the Lawmaster, which is a feature of the comic strip that is malleable enough to either be interpreted through action film convention or used to propel the politics of the comic strip forward. Stallone and the film’s director Danny Cannon opted for the generic option.
This version is much grimier visually, with noticeable debris littering the streets and a visceral rendition of urban decay. In contrast to the Stallone version which featured bright gold accents on their uniforms and bikes, the uniform in Dredd resembles riot gear-like uniforms that have a worn-out appearance, de-emphasizing the superhero aspect of the comic book. This version of Judge Dredd is a more brutal and violent world with rampant poverty, unemployment, limited resources, and a shortened life expectancy (for judges and citizens alike).
The film begins with a chase sequence featuring Judge Dredd on his Lawmaster (which is never named and features a slimmed down design) chasing some criminals in a van driving erratically and under the influence. The scene then focuses on the criminals in the van who are consuming a drug named Slo-mo which causes people to experience time at a slower rate. Slo-mo contributes to a visual motif – scenes of people ingesting the drug have their frame rate slowed down to illustrate this effect to the audience – and a plot point that factors in a significant way for the remainder of the film. Slo-mo also helps illustrate the extent to which people will use anything and everything possible to escape from this terrifying reality, escaping into a harmful drug with potentially devastating consequences, such as a notably reduced reaction time by the criminals in the van.
Further differentiating Dredd from its predecessor, when Control asks if he needs back-up, Judge Dredd answers with an overly confident “No,” as if to show that he is operating in much the same way as your typical loner action hero. The difference being that Dredd is satirizing this stereotype by framing the judges as basically an entire police unit of action hero stereotypes, with the inevitable result being corruption, violence, and extreme measures. Judge Dredd is capable of extreme actions, using excessive violence on criminals, shooting without remorse or consideration for other lives (whether bystander or criminal). This is a judge with extraordinary powers of autonomy that allow him to single-mindedly pursue criminals in a high-risk chase without any coordination from other judges. Considering the risk of property damage and civilian deaths that occur with high-speed pursuits, this reflects the absolute determination and narrow view that Judge Dredd has in his chase. Dredd recklessly weaves in and out of traffic, with no regard for bystander safety, and has no emotional response to the deaths of civilians, simply marking it as another offence committed by the criminals to add to their sentence.
Disturbingly, when the criminals kill a pedestrian that blindly walks in front of the van, Dredd reacts with the same dispassionate response as the criminals. This unemotional response is a result of rigid discipline and control that a judge needs in order to survive the brutal landscape of Mega City One. In Judge Dredd 95, the callous disregard for life was an excuse for him to ruthlessly dispatch his fellow judges without moral conscience, so as to provide an entertaining action spectacle. An action hero cannot be seen expressing regret over his actions. In the 2012 version, the director is depicting in a very visceral way the nature of the brutal conditions of life in the future and that for a judge to properly do his job he has to repress his anger, frustration, and resentment.
The Lawmaster sequence is violent and savage, and Dredd continues to endanger lives when he nonchalantly chases the last surviving criminal on foot and confronts him after he takes a hostage:
Dredd: Release the hostages and I guarantee you life in the iso-cubes without parole.
Ethan Zwirner (Jason Cope): Life without parole? That’s the deal you’re offering?
Dredd: Only if you comply. Your crimes include multiple homicides and attempted murder of a judge. If you do not comply, the sentence is death.
Ethan Zwirner: You aren’t a very good negotiator, judge. You know why? You got no fucking leverage! Here’s the deal: You let me walk or I blow her brains out, okay?
Dredd: Negotiation’s over.
Ethan Zwirner: What’re you doing? Didn’t you hear what I said? I’ll kill the bitch!
Dredd: Yeah, I heard you hotshot.
Ethan Zwirner: What’d you say?
Dredd: I said, hotshot.
[Dredd speaks into his voice-activated Lawgiver gun, activating a Hotshot round that causes Ethan Zwirner’s head to heat up and explode]
Judge Dredd is callous in regards to the hostage’s life and expresses no emotions over his use of excessive force or the endangerment of other people’s lives. He is all about maintaining absolute control at all times.
Written as a satire on conservative politics and the emphasis on law-and-order policies, Judge Dredd extrapolated on that ideology and the aspirational nature of action heroes and presented them in a science fiction context. The logical extension of a world shaped according to this tough-on-crime philosophy would be a truly horrifying state of totalitarianism. Judge Dredd critiques this emphasis on strong law and order by depicting a world where every police officer essentially has the right to act as their own type of maverick / tough guy, making for a law enforcement department that is corrupt and violent.
The Lawmaster chase sequences in Judge Dredd 95 and Dredd provide an identifiable element to compare the two competing visions of law enforcement. Stallone provides the viewer with a more accessible sequence built on spectacle and entertainment, while Dredd uses the Lawmaster sequence for a socio-political critique of modern policing. Judge Dredd 95 disregards the socio-political commentary inherent to the original comic book, substituting those aspects for a chase sequence that conforms to genre expectations and visual spectacle. By contrast, the 2012 adaptation is more in line with the original comic book, presenting a violent and demanding post-apocalyptic future. Dredd uses the Lawmaster sequence to convey through action the uncompromising, single-minded, and utterly determined mentality of its main character, showing how tough Judge Dredd is, and how resolutely committed he is to this fascist system of law, rather than telling us how tough Judge Dredd is, which is what Judge Dredd 95 does.
-Barker, Martin and Kate Brooks, “Waiting for Dredd,” Sight & Sound 5.8, August 1995.
-Cannon, Danny, dir. Judge Dredd, 1995, Burbank, CA, Buena Vista, DVD.
-Travis, Peter and Alex Garland, dir. Dredd. 2012, Santa Monica, CA, Lionsgate, DVD.
-Wagner, John. “I Invented Judge Dredd,” bbc news, February 28, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1820832.stm