Since the second issue of 2000 AD, Judge Dredd has ruled over the streets of Mega-City One, a domed city that contains most of the East Coast of America. The Judges are empowered to be judge, jury and executioner, keeping the lawless post-apocalyptic land of the future as safe as possible.
This movie isn’t anywhere near as beloved as the comic. Co-creator John Wagner said, “I hated that plot. It was Dredd pressed through the Hollywood cliché mill, a dynastic power struggle that had little connection with the character we know from the comic.” He also added, “The story had nothing to do with Judge Dredd, and Judge Dredd wasn’t really Judge Dredd even though Stallone was perfect for the part.”
Joseph Dredd (Stallone) assists first-year Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) in ending a block war (an uncredited James Remar appears in this scene). As Dredd and Hershey quell the rebellion, Herman “Fergee” Ferguson (Rob Schneider) is caught up in the arrests.
Meanwhile, Judge Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow, Sutter Cane from In the Mouth of Madness) releases a former judge named Rico (Armand Assante), who just so happens to be Dredd’s brother, from prison. He reactivates an ABC Warrior combat robot (another 2000 AD series) and murders Hammond (Mitchell Ryan, the Dark Shadows TV show and Dr. Wynn from Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), a reporter who was critical of Dredd’s methods.
Dredd is put on trial by the Chief Judges, including the villainous Griffin and his mentor, Chief Justice Fargo (Max von Sydow). To save our hero, Fargo agrees to step down and enacts the final service of all Judges — doing the long walk into the Cursed Earth while Dredd is sentenced to life in prison.
Rico causes chaos while the cannibalistic Angel Gang attack’s Dredd’s transport to prison. Joining up with Fergee, they escape and are saved by the final sacrifice of Fargo, who is killed by Mean Machine Angel. Before dying, Fargo reveals that Dredd and Rico are the progeny of the Janus project, a genetic engineering effort to create the perfect judge. This explains why Dredd’s DNA was at the crime scene, as Rico’s is identical to his.
Of course, Dredd has to come back and save Mega-City One, ending with a battle between the man who is the law and Rico atop the Statue of Liberty.
To be perfectly honest, Judge Dredd is a mess. Even though it was made more than three years after Demolition Man, a film that it is quite similar to, it feels incredibly dated. The film gets the look of Mega-City One right, but none of the humor or nuance. That said, the Gianni Versace-designed costumes are awesome and I love that Adrienne Barbeau is the voice of computer at the Hall of Justice.
The film had to be submitted to the MPAA five times to get an R rating when its goal was PG-13. And the constant creative disputes led director Danny Cannon to swear he’d never work with another big name actor. He’s gone on to direct I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Geostorm, as well as being a major part of the CSI and Gotham TV shows. Stallone wanted an action comedy film while Cannon wanted a darker, more satirical vision that was closer to the source material.
Stallone would tell Uncut “I do look back on Judge Dredd as a real missed opportunity. It seemed that lots of fans had a problem with Dredd removing his helmet, because he never does in the comic books. But for me it is more about wasting such great potential there was in that idea; just think of all the opportunities there were to do interesting stuff with the Cursed Earth scenes. It didn’t live up to what it could have been.”