Following the commercial and critical success of Demolition Man and based on the iconic 2000 A.D. comic book character, Judge Dredd is a Sylvester Stallone action vehicle that was a commercial flop upon release, making only £113m from a budget of $97m.
After the destruction of most major towns and cities in the 3rd Millenium, the giant sprawling Mega City One houses the majority of the human race. The police officers given the task to keep law and order on the streets are known as judges, the most dedicated of whom is the titular Judge Dredd (Stallone). After a successful mission to stop a gang war, Dredd suddenly becomes accused of killing a journalist and due to a DNA match is found guilty of murder. Chief Judge Fargo (Max Von Sydow) steps down as Chief Judge to spare Dredd’s life and is sent into the wastelands outside Mega City One called the Cursed Earth. Dredd is en route to a penal colony when his transport is shot down by a cannibalistic family and he must fight his way back to the city, to prove his innocence and stop an escaped maniac known as Rico (Armand Assante) who has been slaughtering judges in Dredd’s absence.
Judge Dredd has become one of the most recognisable flops of the action films of the 1990s. Following on from the excellent Demolition Man, but slightly before Con Air or Face/Off, it occupies an odd position of trying to provide adult action entertainment, based off a much-loved and iconic comic book. The setup on paper was perfect and preview scenes shown before release promised a rather over-the-top science fiction action film that would appeal to a broad adult market. What actually was released is one of the most uneven big budget films of the decade.
Mega City One was a well-realised environment and the art design on the Judge’s was glamorous and suitably imposing. Even Stallone, who is hit-and-miss at the best of times manages to imbue Judge Dredd with a facist, almost tyranical edge, which is appropriate considering the source material and he barks iconic lines such as “You received the sentence, the law is required” and “I am the law” with gusto. Yet something is amiss. Rob Schneider plays his standard comic relief role, but sits uncomfortably next to the more serious performances of a supporting cast including Von Sydow in the Obi-Wan Kenobi role and Diane Lane as the token female. The action scenes are decent, but the now-infamously terrible aerial chase scene wouldn’t look out of place in a film made thirty years before.
So despite the positives of environment, a solid central performance and some good action, Judge Dredd is a confused science fiction action film. Stuck halfway between a serious morality tale and a tongue-in-cheek parody it never truly realises its potential and for fans of the comic, Stallone does insist on taking his helmet off.