“Eat recycled food,” suggests a hallway robot in Judge Dredd. That could be the movie’s tag-line: Everything in it comes almost full-blown from the foreheads of Blade Runner, RoboCop, The Terminator, and Batman. But this is tasty recycled food, and Sylvester Stallone — as Judge Joseph Dredd, the cream of the neofascist police force patrolling the chaotic blocks of Mega-City One — gives a new performance. He does his scowling Rambo routine and tosses off the usual cheesy one-liners, but he shows flashes of amusement at what he’s doing. In futuristic head-slammers like this and Demolition Man, Stallone is the comedian he failed to be in his early-’90s comedy attempts. Those were light comedies; these, I guess, are heavy-metal comedies. Dredd is every anal-retentive principal or gym teacher you ever laughed at behind their backs, and Stallone understands that the only way to play him is absolutely straight. Dredd almost never even sits down; in his phallic, gleaming helmet and mammoth epaulets, he’s a walking erection, forever alert to the smallest transgressions.
Judge Dredd is junk, but it’s fun junk with a decent pedigree. The British comic book it takes off from (written mainly by Alan Grant and John Wagner) was conceived as the reductio ad absurdum of the rock-ribbed heroes who usually shoulder their way through comics. Dredd is a superhero gloss on R. Crumb’s character Whiteman, who said, “I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost.” The comic’s tongue-in-cheek irreverence makes it into the movie fairly intact, largely because director Danny Cannon is a Dredd devotee. Judge Dredd doesn’t make the mistake of suggesting that things will get so bad in the future that we’ll need “protectors” like Dredd. On the contrary, as the movie goes on you begin to feel that things are that bad because of cops like Dredd. Religiously devoted to the law, Dredd sentences people to five years for minor offenses. It’s the nightmare flip side of the enforced sunshine world of Demolition Man: If you live in Mega-City One, you can’t not break some law.
Cannon and the writers (William Wisher and Steven E. de Souza) soon give Dredd a taste of his own medicine. A newscaster and his wife are murdered, and Dredd is framed for the crime. Despite the legal maneuvers of Dredd’s partner, the more compassionate Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), Dredd is sentenced to life imprisonment in Aspen. The bitter, psychotic ex-Judge Rico (Armand Assante) is behind the frame-up: He wants Dredd out of the way so he can clone a master race of Judges from his own DNA. Casually blowing holes in people or gloating over his huge robotic bodyguard, Assante gives an icy-eyed Christopher Walken performance; he’s enjoyable, but he should concentrate on being Assante. (Those who recall that he played Stallone’s brother in 1978’s Paradise Alley may be amused by the plot twist here.)
This is only Danny Cannon’s second feature (his debut was The Young Americans, a morose Harvey Keitel vehicle that drove straight to video), but he doesn’t seem intimidated by the scale, the sets, the budget, or the star. Working with ace cinematographer Adrian Biddle (who shot Thelma & Louise), Cannon gives Judge Dredd a pleasant big-movie look: hefty but not overdeliberate. He knows how to stage action so that we can see who’s who and what’s where — this appears to be a dying art this summer. And he understands Dredd’s stoic appeal. This frowning fascist who grunts “I am the law” begs to be goofed on, and Cannon provides a good foil in Rob Schneider, as a harmless petty criminal who runs afoul of Dredd and later teams up with him. Schneider, who never seemed to move past his Copy Guy during his Saturday Night Live gig, may have found his niche as action-movie comic relief. Bug-eyed and shrimpy, he skitters alongside the granite hero and never shuts up. His lines aren’t always fresh, but he’s consistently funny.
I saw Judge Dredd the day after the slight letdown of Apollo 13. It seems perverse to say that Dredd is the better movie, but I had a better time at it. It isn’t trying to be true to history — it isn’t true to anything except a comic book. Danny Cannon gives us our bearings at the start by moving in on the panels of a Dredd comic. The device works better here than it did in The Return of Swamp Thing, whose opening-credit montage of comic-book panels was livelier than the crap that followed. Here, the panels are like the fake (or actual) newsreels that kick off historical dramas: They set up the world and set the tone. And the movie is faithful to the unfussy, straightforward clarity of adventure comics in a way that shames the cluttered Batman Forever, which played like a random bunch of panels glued together out of order. Judge Dredd is simple and mindlessly gratifying, and Sylvester Stallone, finally resigned to being the comic-book jock he’s become, achieves an odd paradox. Playing this stiff, constipated hero, he does his most relaxed acting in years.