The opening credits of the new futuristic Sylvester Stallone clobber-movie “Judge Dredd” are crowded with the comic-book covers of the cartoon super-hero. That’s a tip-off that we’re about to see a comic-book movie.
Then a windy, wordy preamble describing the apocalyptic Third Millennium world we are about to enter rolls down the screen. Just in case your comic-book appreciation skills are still in the preliterate stage, the words are intoned by James Earl Jones. That’s a tip-off that it’s OK to shut off your verbal skills for this film.
You won’t need them.
“Judge Dredd” tries to create a cartoon universe that is simultaneously grungy and bespangled, with a story by turns campy and straight-arrow. At the center of it all is Stallone’s Joe Dredd, based on the character originally created for the British comics magazine 2000 AD, a visored guardian of the law in the apocalyptic world of Mega-Cities where populations exist beehive-like in high-rises and regularly rout each other. Dredd clanks through these mean streets in designer armor-wear that makes him look like a flavorsome crustacean; and he keeps his pronouncements clipped and to the point. Sample dialogue: “I am the law!”
Dredd is a stickler for the law--actually, he’s kind of a pain about the law. In the comics, Dredd is a blasted commando who never removes his visor, never cracks a smile, never questions his role as combination judge, jury and executioner. Stallone’s Dredd removes his visor, cracks an occasional semi-smile, and, when he finds himself framed for murder and sent to the penal colonies, questions authority (sort of).
Well, it’s a start.
The appeal of Dredd, both in the (relatively) straight-faced comic books and in his jauntier, clunkier movie incarnation, is his direct-action approach to justice. He’s the Dirty Harry of the digital effects generation. Within the first half hour of the film he’s splattering bad guys and, even better, blowing up a snooty futuro-yuppie’s sports car.
Dredd is like an embodiment of the audience’s wildest revenge fantasies, but 26-year-old director Danny Cannon and his screenwriters William Wisher and Steven E. deSouza, don’t really get into the full reactionary nastiness of it. They don’t target too many sacred cows. It’s as if they were afraid a social-satiric edge would alienate all the hormone-pumped teen boys who represent the core audience for this film. (Their fears are probably grounded.)
They also shy away from anything richer in the scenario. (Comic-book extravaganzas can be psychologically rich--just look at “The Empire Strikes Back.”) Dredd has his counterpart in Rico (Armand Assante), like Dredd a product of the finest DNA science can devise but as malevolent as Dredd is staunch. Rico, with his sparked eyes and Gila monster profile, plots with Judge Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow) to rule Mega-City One. Dredd and Rico are mirror images--literally good cop and bad cop--but we never sense in Dredd a pull to the dark side.
We never sense much of anything in him. Where he’s supposed to show a bit of warming in his scenes with his beauteous legal protector Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) he seems about as programmatic as Mr. Spock. He’s like Spock on steroid overload. Stallone plays Dredd with a hulky half-humor; his great jaw and froggy-scary voice are already the stuff of comics.
Stallone seems to have resigned himself--rather lucratively--to playing overdeveloped, sub-verbal cartoons. This sort of thing may go over big with the overseas market that can’t abide subtitles on their movies or complexity in their heroes, but it’s straitjacketed Stallone into the role of kiddie kingpin superstar. Dredd’s humor functions only on the rebound--he’s the butt of jokes from his petty-thief sidekick “Fergie” (Rob Schneider). But, really, we don’t need all of Fergie’s jibes. We in the audience do a good job supplying our own.
The filmmakers go for an over-the-top approach to mayhem and sometimes they pull off a rip-roaring moment or two. There’s a flying motorbike chase through Mega-City One’s inky skies that’s a digitalized wingding; and the production design by Nigel Phelps and the visual effects by Joel Hynek take us inside the City’s mega-grunge in a way most of these futuro-fantasies don’t. The action, which seems truncated yet over-long, piles on so many things that a frame-by-frame comic-book effect is fitfully achieved. The director doesn’t provide much kinetic movie-making pleasure but he knows enough to jam the screen with clamor. It’s not excitement, exactly. It’s simulated excitement.
* MPAA rating: R, for continuous violent action. Times guidelines: It includes lots of gruesome cartoon violence.
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‘Judge Dredd’ Sylvester Stallone: Judge Dredd Armand Assante: Rico Rob Schneider: Fergie Max von Sydow: Judge Fargo A Hollywood Pictures release of a Andrew G. Vajna presentation of an Edward R. Pressman/Cinergi production in association with Charles M. Lippincott. Director Danny Cannon. Producers Charles M. Lippincott, Beau L. Marks. Executive producers Andrew G. Vajna and Edward R. Pressman. Screenplay by William Wisher and Steven E. deSouza, based on the Judge Dredd characters owned by Fleetway Publications Limited and created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle. Editors Alex Mackie, Harry Keramidas. Costumes Emma Porteous. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Nigel Phelps. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.