Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Sly versus Urban. The Dredd Wars


Popular opinion tells us that:

a) The film Judge Dredd (1995) starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by Danny Cannon was awful.

b) The film Dredd (2012) starring Karl Urban, written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis was awesome.

I would like to tell you that neither of those things are true. Judge Dredd was not awful and Dredd was not awesome.

What you're about to read is, of course, simply my opinion, but if the internet runs true to form, there may be folk who don't want to hear this. Perhaps my position is too controversial, causing rage to bubble up inside them. They might want to spit that vitriol back at me, with insults, name calling and maybe even a bit of considered argument. And I welcome that. That's what the comments section below is for. But to those people can I ask one thing before the typing starts?

Please just hear me out.

Let's begin with Judge Dredd, the one starring Sly Stallone. This film takes a lot of stick. It gets ripped apart in just about every place where people like me (nerds) get together to discuss things like that (sci-fi and fantasy). But it's really not that bad. Okay, granted the script wasn't great. And the Fergee character was way out of place (not to mention seriously annoying, almost on a par with Jar Jar). And the dialogue pretty much sucked. And some of those lines had soul-crushing delivery ('I kneww youwd say dat'). But come on, it looked amazing.

AMAZING.

And in my book amazing visuals count for a lot when you're discussing the visual arts. The ABC robot (not previously seen in the Dreddverse, but that all 2000AD fans knew as Hammerstein) was incredible. It was designed by Chris Halls, who had briefly drawn for 2000AD, before changing his name to Chris Cunningham and becoming an award-winning director of music videos for the likes of Bjork and Aphex Twin. His war robot must surely rank as one of the best movie droids to appear on celluloid (or whatever the pixel age equivalent is. Pixels, I suppose). And the robot wasn't generated in a computer program; Chris Halls actually made that thing. He also designed the prosthetic make-up for Mean Machine which was equally as brilliant, and frankly rather terrifying.



In another life these guys could have been friends

As well as the ABC Warrior and the Angel Gang, the film also included Fargo, the Cursed Earth, the Long Walk, Block Wars, the Grand Hall of Justice, Rico, cadet Judges, the cloning programme and a whole host of other exciting ideas from the comic. It was really quite epic in its sweep.

The city and most of the vehicles also looked fantastic. Straight out of the comic - like the original strip in three dimensional form. No mean feat as Judge Dredd was made the old way, before movies of this ilk routinely employed CGI and digital 3D rendering.

I said above 'most of the vehicles looked fantastic', so does that statement include the Lawmaster bikes? Sadly no. There was something awkward and ungainly about them, overly embellished beyond their functionality. I didn't hate them, they were neither good nor bad, just kinda m'eh.


M'eh, blah, bleh, whatever

Then there was Dredd's uniform. The skin-tight lycra was a misstep, but the eagle shoulder pad was very nicely realised, not straying too far from the comic. And his helmet, although he hardly wore it, really looked the part. When a character is practically defined by his headgear, you really have to get it right. At the very least it has to fit. And Stallone's helmet not only fit, but looked cool too. Fans complained bitterly that Stallone took the helmet off, but as I've already discussed in an earlier post, this isn't even something the comic prohibits. We're never meant to see Dredd's face (it's a metaphor for the facelessness of justice), but that's not the same as never removing the helmet. And besides, that's in the comic. Movies and comics are different media and what works in one, may not work in the other. If you put a lot of money into a niche project, using a famous face to open up the project to a wider audience, then that audience probably expects to see the famous face's face. What happens when the audience isn't satisfied? The film doesn't make enough money to justify a sequel.

And, talking of famous faces, as well as Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante and Diane Lane in the lead roles, we also got solid performances from sci-fi greats Max von Sydow and J├╝rgen Prochnow plus James Earl Jones doing a bit of portentous narration at the beginning.

So the film makes me cringe with regret for what it got wrong, but it also never fails to impress me with what it got right.

Now let's talk about Dredd. It's unquestionably a better film than the Stallone version. More serious in tone, in line with the current trend for reboots, with an ultra-violent take on life in Dredd's future city. Except that it isn't really Mega-City One at all. The city looks completely different. No soaring pedways hanging between the crammed city blocks with crazy names and crazier architecture. No twenty-lane meg-ways tearing through its heart. No Weather Control, no sector houses, almost nothing recognisable from the comic whatsoever. Instead we got a completely different take, with a seemingly under-funded Justice Department and characterless, monolithic city blocks dotted sporadically across an otherwise fairly normal-looking location. I'm not saying the city was bad. It wasn't, it was a very believable urban dystopia, but it wasn't the Mega-City One that Judge Dredd has spent nearly forty years establishing.

And the vehicles were a bit of a let-down too. In the opening scene the 'perps' were speeding away in an old camper van that would have looked more at home outside Granny McFeague's Post Office in Little Shittington. Dredd was chasing them on his Lawmaster, which, although it seemed to work convincingly, was not a great looking prop. Concept sketches from earlier in the production were far more interesting than the final hand-made-Adam-West's-Batmobile-on-two-wheels that made it into the film.

But to be honest the above points are minor gripes. I suspect that at least one of them is merely down to budgetary constraints. And as a fan of Judge Dredd, I would rather see a Dredd film made on a small budget, than no Dredd film at all.

And Dredd got a lot right. In fact I couldn't begin to write a comprehensive list of everything that was spot on. Or rather I could begin, but probably wouldn't finish it.  So instead I'll just pick out three points that prove I actually like this film, then get back to my argument about not liking it as much as everyone else.

1. The cinematography was fantastic, and the film looked great. The opening Lawmaster chase and Slo-Mo scene particularly stood out. The whole sequence pulled off the hard task of being fresh, exciting and beautiful, all at the same time.


The filming was so good I almost forgot I disliked the bikes. Almost

2. As I've already said in another post the redesigned Judges looked excellent. The decision to rationalise their uniforms made perfect sense, and the new look still owed much to established Dredd mythos.

3. The film's use of humour was pitched just right. The comic strip has always had a black humour to it, at its best using a lightness of tone or an occasional well-placed one-liner as counterpoint to the dark subject matter. And Alex Garland's dryly humorous script manages to capture this much better than the embarassingly clumsy attempts made by the earlier version. Here's a typical example:

Chief Judge: Sink or swim, chuck her in the deep end.
Dredd: It's all deep end.

So why didn't I love this film the way so many other fans seemed to love it? It's fairly straightforward. And it's not because near the beginning of the film, Dredd, when facing off against a thug holding a hostage like a human shield, chooses to fire a 'hotshot' bullet. What is that? Is it heat-seeking? Surely a bullet arbitrarily drawn to the nearest source of heat is the worst possible choice to fire at a perp hiding behind a nice, warm, innocent bystander?

No, that's just another quibble. The real reason I can't watch this film over and over again is much simpler. It essentially boils down to me finding the story too linear. Joe Dredd is so resolute and implacable, Alex Garland struggled to give him any kind of character ark, instead choosing to have the lesser character Anderson on the learning curve. So once the setup was established the viewer had a fairly good idea how it was going to end. The plot and the peril were laid out for us early on and then the story simply followed the path we were expecting. There weren't enough surprises and revelations, the events didn't unfold in unexpected ways, so the film was never elevated to it's deserved status. Dredd and Anderson were always going to:

• Outsmart the low level bad guys
• Face a dark moment that nearly ends them
• Use Anderson's psi power and Dredd's determination to win out
• Climb to the top of the building
• Kill Ma-Ma 
• Leave

You could almost have walked off halfway through and guessed the rest.

So it was a good film, that made some interesting tweaks and changes to established Dredd mythology, not all of them good, with some incredible set-pieces and lovely visual effects, which was let down by a predictable storyline that didn't explore enough unforeseen avenues.

Disagree? Over to you. Don't hold back. Give me hi-ex.


6 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more with your comments on the Stallone film. I was blown away when I first saw Mega City One - it was perfect. Up there on the big screen was Wagner and Ezquerra's future megapolis exactly as it should be and five minutes into the film I was very happy. As it went on there were many more fan pleasing moments with The Angel Gang being my particular favourite. But as awesome as Mean Machine and Hammerstein were (Chris Cunningham - who knew?) the bad points are just so bad. I really wanted to like Stallone as Dredd and was prepared for him removing the helmet but - not all the bloody time! And the stupid catchphrases! And the smiling! And the - for Grud's sake - KISSING!! And I would rather spend a lifetime locked in a cupboard with Scrappy Doo, Ja Ja Binks and Adam Sandler than endure one minute in the company of the Fergie character. That's a lot of sentences starting with the word "and".

    But all I'm doing here is agreeing with you (and there's a sentence starting with the word "but". I'm in a rush). It annoys me that the film is so derided as it has some really amazing stuff in for the fans, but at the same time there are parts which are truly diabolical. In fact I can't think of a single other movie to compare it to in that respect. Yes I can - The Phantom Menace.

    I definitely don't agree with your opinion of Dredd. I can't really elaborate much here as my tea is nearly ready but that film made me sooooooo happy. Yes - mega city didn't look so exciting but it fitted the context of the movie. It was a mega city for the Chris Nolan age of comic book movies - some things would just look ridiculous.

    And to say that you knew the good guys would win in the end is a silly criticism that could be applied to pretty much any movie.

    To me Dredd was a masterpiece and I despise the fact that we will never get to see the intended sequels.

    Gotta go loved your article - if they ever do a reboot then I think "Russell's Inflatable Muscles" would be a good storyline to go with.

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    1. Winnie the Blue you had me laughing out loud. What a great inaugural comment for this blog. And I can confirm you're not the only one who loves the 2012 Dredd. (I just started a sentence with the word 'and'.) Unfortunately for me I seem to be the only one who has any criticism of this movie. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) I have spoken to about this film shares your view, pretty much in its entirety. I stand alone. Which made me sad, until I realised Dredd himself often stands alone. So then I felt quite cool. But then I realised I was associating myself with a make-believe fascist originally aimed at 12 year old boys, so I felt sad again. But I digress. What I meant to say was thanks for reading, and glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. My dok, how can you say those things about the Karl Urban film?

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  3. Ok. Full disclosure. I’m a not a Dredd expert (Dreddnaut? Dreddhead?), but I do enjoy a good sci-fi/dark fantasy/actioner when I’m in the mood for such a thing; which is pretty much always.

    The Stallone movie looks fantastic to begin with – I couldn’t agree more. It’s all gravy in fact, until Dredd speaks, and then I was flooded with “Lynch the casting director” thoughts. I guess films have to be made with money and the money people like bankable faces – another reason why we get to see so much of Sly’s, and another reason the film drops where it could soar. The dumbed down, very 80’s (although made in 1995 WTF) tone is set immediately when James Earl Jones has to enunciate the opening credits rather than let us read them. Hell, you’d think an audience predominately made up of comic book fans would be able to manage a few paragraphs…

    It does contain great elements of Dredd mythology and just as you forgive it’s schlocky ways, it falls down and eventually reverts to type of being just another Sly Stallone action hero vehicle. Alan Silvestri’s best John Williams impression has the wrong feel entirely and the look is all too shiny (not in a good way, Firefly fans) by far, for me. Overall though, not as terrible as the fanboys say, but not really good enough to warrant watching unless you’re purely about the visuals, and are happy to relegate your brain for the sake of your eyes…what am I saying..?

    Best line goes to Diane Lane in her fight towards the end:
    Ilsa: “Bitch!”
    Hershey: “Judge Bitch!”

    Dredd 2012 for me does all the things I wanted and more. The post-Nolan (is that where we are?) look and feel wrap themselves around the subject matter like “ugly on a hog”, and Urban’s underplayed growl doesn’t jar (jar binks) with me at all. A filthy, depraved environment that actually needs the judges, rather than a film set that would tolerate a smiling Sly Stallone post crowd-pleasing (angering) kiss.

    Is the ’95 film terrible – yes, as a film. It is worthless – no. Just look at it!

    Is Dredd flawless – no. It could’ve (should’ve) gone outside the confines and given us a bigger view of Megacity 1. Is it an amazing example of talent and passion getting around limited budgets and short sighted non-fans holding the purse strings – absolutely. We all deserve another one from this stable of film creators.

    Does my opinion mean anything? I like to think so, but I’m not the law.

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  4. Haha, Dreddnaut. If that's not a bonafide term then by Jovus it should be. And a great start to an excellent comment. If I ever go on holiday can I leave this blog in yours and Winnie the Blue's hands?

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  5. I don't mind admitting that the Stallone Dredd wasn't a terrible film. Not a great starting sentence nor high praise but it looked great and the ABC robot was the best thing in it. Sure, the dodgy moment when they somehow manage to decode a photograph or the pointless side kick Adam Sandler seems so hooked on will stick in our sides. But, you've gotta taste the sour to appreciate the sweet.

    The 'Urban' dredd (even with the transparent storyline) was a nice reboot down the right path. It was dark, over the top, with a slight peppering of black comedy. Lets hope that theres more to come and that theres an ABC in there for good measure...and some better bikes, the latest ones didn't cut it.

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