Judge Dredd, Dredd 3D and the Importance of Tone

A gruff-faced Judge Dredd is looking down at the reader, a police baton raised in preparation, all framed by a burning American flag. The tag line: End Times A-Coming.

It’s an apocalyptic vision full of tropes that would be familiar to a regular reader of the British weekly science-fiction anthology 2000AD. Yet it took on ominous tones, being released only two days after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. So a day before its official release, 2000AD issued a pre-emptive statement explaining that the cover was commissioned two months ago, was not meant to directly reflect the current situation, that they support Black Lives Matter, and that they use satire and drama to give voice to the disenfranchised.

This might seem over-dramatic for a comic with a small circulation in the US, but the publishers know that this isn’t the first time Judge Dredd has had a difficulty with tone.

Since first appearing in 2000AD in 1977, Judge Dredd has often been used by writers to satirise American culture. It transplants the Dirty Harry archetype to a 22nd century America, where the populace live in crime-ridden and over-crowded Mega-cities due to nuclear fallout making the rest of the planet unliveable.

These cities are ruled by a Judge class who make life for the population even more difficult; they repress free speech, have banned all stimulants (including coffee and sugar), and when they die their bodies are sent to Resyck to be made into meat.

Both violent and ruthless, the Judges are a warning of what happens if you take the myth of the lone cowboy and base a quasi-religion around it.

Judge Dredd will go to extreme lengths to uphold the law but rather than a loner, he exists in a legal system which requires all Judges to live like monks. It is unpaid, they are not allowed to have relationships and at the end of their career are expected to walk into the irradiated desert of the Cursed Earth to bring justice to the “lawless”. They are given the power to be judge, jury and executioner with no external checks and balances, apart from their own internal Special Judicial Squad.

Having a seamless continuity since 1977 (Dredd is still walking the streets at 73 years old) overseen by co-creator John Wagner, has allowed Dredd to move beyond satirical caricature to a nuanced character. A character who in one story will sentence East Meg one, a city with millions of innocent people, to atomic annihilation. Then in another story will allow an older man to break the law and give his wife a traditional burial, without appearing inconsistent.

In making him more likeable, the strip at times runs the risk of downplaying the awfulness of the system he represents. By the mid-eighties, writers Wagner and Alan Grant were worried about a section of the fanbase treating Judge Dredd as an idol. So they introduced the terrorist organisation Total War in Letter to a Democrat, whose goals were to reintroduce democracy to Mega-City One.

In the story, a mother of two, with help from her colleagues, overrun a news station to protest against the Judges. The Judges mow them down in a hail of bullets. When Dredd visits the grieving husband, he warns him, “Democacy’s not for the people”. More chillingly, as Dredd leaves he asks the Justice Department to keep tabs on the two young children in case they have picked up any of their mothers “bad habits”.

The strength of Judge Dredd as a comic is that writers can use him to tell any number of stories. Will he be the villain or heartless bureaucrat doling out the law without care for the consequences? Or the hero saving Mega-City One from external destruction and criminal gangs? Writers like Wagner and Rob Williams can write stories that depict him as both, but it takes a careful hand.

The 1995 film Judge Dredd wants to tell too many stories. It takes characters from different Dredd storylines and even other 2000AD properties (The ABC Warrior) then tries to streamline it into a 90-minute feature.  The result is a tonal mess.

Director Danny Cannon intended to make a film that was “Star Wars meet Ben Hur” with some of the original comics trademark violence. Yet the numerous homages to Star Wars—James Earl Jones opening narration, the sun-kissed opening shot of a judge looking out into the distance, the law masters speeding through the air—jars with the non-family friend violence. No Obi-Wan is being struck down and disappearing into the air, rather the villain Rico shoots his jailer in the neck and then later gives a robot orders to rip Judge Griffin’s arms off.

Unlike Cannon, Sylvester Stallone and the studio saw Dredd in a comedic vein. Stallone described Dredd in one interview as a “nut” and wanted the film to be a PG-13 comedy action film. So they took control of the final cut from Cannon, cutting out the violence, so scenes that should end with cathartic/sickening blood cut away. The Dredd and Clone battle touted in the trailer is taken out. So what the audience sees is Rico releasing an army of ghastly half-formed clones, a clone shrieks in Dredd’s face…and that’s it.

Sam Raimi once described the Evil Dead as like the 3 Stooges, well Judge Dredd is a horror film with all the punchlines taken out.

The absence of the satire was a conscious choice to not invite comparison with Paul Verhoven’s Robocop. A character partly based on Judge Dredd himself. However, without the satire or any underlying point to make, the film becomes generic action-comedy fodder with impressive set dressing.

Everybody is on a different comic register

It’s an uneasy mix of farce, slapstick, and smut. To his credit, Rob Schneider plays the comedy sidekick role of Fergie the same way he plays anything. It just doesn’t belong in this type of film.

Everybody seems to be on a different comic register. The doomed rookie’s child-like ineptitude belongs in some sort of Dr Strangelove type satire. In full armour, Stallone struts around like a model sashaying down the catwalk. Armand Assante, as the villain Rico, has all the charm of a weightlifter missing his steroids, and Fergie makes a gay rape joke.

Every filmic cliché is deployed; a strip of light over the eyes at a moment of heightened emotion, the obligatory slow-mo run from an explosion, the death of the mentor, thunder and lightning during a key revelation.

Similar stock clichés are deployed in Paul Verhoven’s Starship Troopers and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy, but both are hymns to excess at every level, so the viewer can both chuckle and be swept up by them. Judge Dredd is too joyless even to be enjoyed ironically.

The Judges in this film are no longer the fascists of the original; they are a tooled-up police force brought down by internal corruption, not because they don’t have the moral right to rule. As Chief Judge Fargo argues early on the film, the Judges stand for “freedom, not oppression”.

Although Fargo later renounces the Judges for taking the law out of Lady Justice’s hands, the film makes more of a case for individuals being the problem, not the system.

Fargo disapproves of the number of people Dredd’s kills, but the audience never sees Dredd shoot anybody without just cause. Chief Judge Griffin and Rico conspire to bring martial law but clearly have their own agendas separate to the rest of the department. Hershey reprimands Dredd for blaming his repression on how he was raised, telling him his lack of emotions was something he did to himself. Fargo describes how Rico has “genetically mutated into the perfect criminal”, putting Rico’s psychotic failings down to genetics. And at the end of the film, with their secrets made public for everyone to know, the Judges return to power virtually unchanged.

The system is not at fault; it’s the people in it. It’s a similar line of the argument to the one the NRA use any time there is a massacre:  guns don’t kill people, people do.

Judge Hershey looks confused listening to Judge Dredd

While Fargo plays the Obi-Wan mentor, Judge Hershey is supposed to be the films conscious. The empathic female character whose role is to get the main hero in touch with their feelings. Holding her own throughout, the film robs her own agency in the final scene: having her pine after Dredd as he coldly walks pass her to go back on patrol. She follows him like a dog, puts his helmet on and, unprompted, kisses him. His final smug words to her, “I’d knew you’d say that”, sound less like light-hearted banter but misogyny. Dredd begins the film towering over Hershey, and in his character’s mind ends the movie like that, and the assumed male-only audience of this film can leave the cinema feeling unthreatened.

Few are petitioning for the Cannon cut of Dredd to be released, in fact, if you asked fans if they want that film wiped from our collective memory they might agree. But before getting high and mighty about it, it’s worth remembering that by 1995, the original Dredd strip was suffering tonal problems of its own.

In the ’90s, Wagner started writing Dredd for the 2000ad spin-off Megazine, which concentrating on expanding the Dredd universe. This left the task of writing Dredd in 2000ad to a new breed of writers: Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and Mark Miller. All writers who would go on to great things but struggled to match Wagner’s subtle characterisation and plotting.

In a straightforward narrative, Ennis was very capable (Raider) but too often his humour was too scattershot for the satire to land. While Millar and Morrison seemed to treat Dredd just as an action comic, with their epics Crusade and Inferno just a lot of action scenes with little wit or point.

Since the early days, the comic always had a problem depicting Judges from other cultures without resorting to racial stereotypes. As Dredd became a more rounded character, you would hope that these depictions would fade away. They didn’t. In an era when the writers really should have known better, these elements were now front and centre for all to see in both the Megazine and 2000AD.

Thankfully at the turn of the century, new owners Rebellion brought 2000AD and brought in a new editorial team who reinvigorated the title. So by the time that 2012’s Dredd 3D got greenlighted, they knew the tone the adaption had to strike.

Proudly proclaiming its 18 certificate for frequent strong bloody violence and gore as a badge of honour, this was a film intended for an adult audience that grew up reading the original comics. Like its predecessor, it flopped however and has since gone to find a large audience in-home media and is well-liked by fans. Part of the commercial failure may be due to marketing it as Dredd 3D sold the film as a gimmick. In fact, the 3D sequences make the film feel closer to the comic, by making the drug Slo-Mo integral to the plot.

In the film, addicts use Slo-Mo to make time move at 1/100th of its normal speed, which gives the film licence to show a drug bust in slow motion, with dealer’s faces and chests exploding as bullets pass through them. Even without the 3D glasses, the visual effects are stunning and recreate the breathing-taking gasp of turning a page of a comic only to see a spectacularly bloody death.

Although Judge Dredd looks ostensibly like the original strip, Dredd 3D gets the tone right by playing by the rules of the comic. Rules which may seem arbitrary or ridiculous but are in fact key to understanding the character of Dredd.

For over 43 years, Judge Dredd’s face has always been partially obscured, either by his helmet, shadow, horrible scarring or face transplant. He deliberately remains unknowable, an almost faceless tool of oppression. So, understandably, when in 1995 when Judge Fargo asked Dredd to “stand at ease” and he took off his helmet, fans were aghast. And to rub salt into the wound, after the first 20 minutes of the film, the helmet stays off until the very last minute.

Karl urban as Judge Dredd

In contrast, Karl Urban is only briefly seen from behind, putting on the helmet and his left to grimace his way through the rest of the film. When Judge Anderson reads his mind through a one-way mirror, she can feel his anger and control but is cut short before she tries to find what is underneath. Urban gives little away in this scene or throughout the film, relying on grunts and different frowns, staying true to Dredd’s nickname in the comic: Ol’ Stoney Face.

Comic book films, like most films, often insist on their lead characters having an arc, whereby the main character ends the film irrevocably changed by the end credits. While in comics characters may change—even Dredd resigned from the Justice Department for a bit—the status quo is always restored after a while because that is what readers want.

In Judge Dredd, Dredd gets in touch with his emotions and becomes more human; the implication is that he won’t be so harsh in future. In Dredd 3D, Dredd starts and ends the film as the same person: a Judge solely focused on bringing perps to justice, with no compassion for the victims. The only thing that changes is his opinion on Judge Anderson.

Towards the start, he risks a hostage’s life to get his man and seems disinterested when she thanks him. While in the end, he risks the lives of everybody living on the top 50 floors of Peach Trees when he shoots to wound Ma-Ma, despite knowing her heart is linked to rigged explosives. This is a man to whom the law is everything and the events shown are just another day in Mega-City One. At the end, when a chief judge asks Dredd about what just happened, he glibly dismisses it as just a “drug bust”.

Dredd 3D goes to great lengths to distance himself from the 1995 film, so at times it can feel as much as a reaction to the first film, as an adaption.

The story scales down events to one Megablock Peachtrees. Dredd’s distinctive uniform is changed to almost nondescript leathers like a third world foot soldier. Also, the humour is sparsely peppered throughout the film, secondary to violence. Even Mega-City One is different. Dredd 3D is made to a much smaller budget then it’s predecessor. Whereas in 1995, Mega-City Zone was a spectacular but generic Blade Runner-esque metropolis, Mega-City One in Dredd 3D feels more like an extension of the sun-baked Cursed Earth outside it, ready to boil over at any time.

While Judge Dredd can rightly be accused of showing us too much of Dredd’s world, Dredd 3D only hints at the wider world. It is less interested in the Judges and more in the nature of violence and how it changes characters. Specifically, female characters.

Judge Anderson holds up a machine gun

Judge Anderson fills the emphatic female role here, as a mutant with psychic abilities, and it’s her character that changes the most as the film goes on.

She begins as an idealist, believing she can change things. A character who only just didn’t qualify for a Judge but is given a trial with Dredd because of her abilities. She is initially reluctant to kill, having to be prompted by Dredd to execute a criminal. She later accidentally runs into his wife, who is still oblivious to the fate of her husband. When their prisoner Kay realises Anderson is psychic, he deliberately imagines a graphic and violent sexual encounter to shock her.

As she becomes more brutalised, she takes more control of her own choices. When Dredd fails to beat a confession out of Kay, she mentally breaks him down and makes him piss himself. She then later defies Dredd by letting a perp go, as she decides from reading his mind that he is a victim, taking back her agency. She then ends the film ruthlessly moving from room to room killing perps indiscriminately. When Dredd tells her handler “she’s a pass “at the end it is because she has become a mirror of him.

Multiple times in the narrative, the violence of the block/Mega-City One redefines female identities or loyalties.

The villain, Ma-Ma, played to sneering perfection by Lena Headley, ascends to power after biting off the cock of the pimp who scarred her. While a wife, she betrays the gang her husband belongs to, so she can protect her family.

While male characters don’t change, all products of brutal Mega-City One, waiting for their turn in Resyk. The film’s outlook is bleak but not nihilistic. Dredd as a person is unchanged but if he can change his mind on Anderson, maybe he can his mind on other matters?

Although it takes more liberties with the comic, Dredd 3D is truer in tone to the original then Judge Dredd. The film’s commercial performance ruled out a sequel, but the positive fan and critical reaction has prompted Rebellion to develop a Mega-City One series.

Stories of a world where an officer of the law goes too far are still unfortunately relevant—as long as you get the right tone.

Written by Matthew Mansell

I’ve been writing about music, film and comics for over 20 years. And I won’t stop now.

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