Monday, September 24, 2012

The Day the Law Revived

Early on in my comic book collecting career, my primary purchasing locations were stationary shops, convenience stores, newsstands and such.

Yes, comic books were also printed on stone, illustrated with charcoal and lettered in Sanskrit.

One year for my birthday a friend, who lived in a much more “relaxed and groovy” type area than I did, sent me a package of stuff bought from an actual comic book store.

Included in that packet was an issue of Judge Dredd, which served as a mind blowing introduction to the ├╝ber violent fairly satirical location that is Mega City One.

At that young age, I had no idea that the Eagle comics run of Judge Dredd was randomly ordered reprints of the lawman’s adventures (started in 1977 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra) which had appeared in the British 2000 AD comic. I also had no idea I was being introduced to a large number of British/Scottish writers and artists I would be following in American comic books when they made their way across the pond.  (Particularly Alan Grant, who brought his over the top sense of carnage and commentary on society over into Batman, The Demon, and Lobo.)

Due to the lack of comic shops at the time, I managed to obtain the remainder of the Eagle run in a somewhat random and sporadic fashion, which worked interestingly with the random and sporadic fashion they reprinted the work.  Even with the confusion, I got to see some of the classic stories that defined the character

The Day the Law Died (ended in the first issue I got…The quest began!)
The Return of Rico
The Cursed Earth
Block Mania
The Robot Wars
The Apocalypse War
Um…the story where he was on the moon
(Note to self: look at actual comics next time you write one of these lists)

I had amassed about half the run by senior year of high school, and for reasons I can’t explain, brought the stack in during the no man’s land in AP Physics between the advanced placement test and the end of the year.  The entire class sat around reading Judge Dredd comics, being amazed at the non code content.  I was even more amazed at the one girl who would dramatically read the sound effects for other students.  High School was a weird place.

I dug up the rest of the series, plus some of the Quality reprints (I only learned recently they pulled material from the same pool. I may have to hit the back issue bins again as the random and sporadic nature means I have about half the content in any of the new trades.) I also picked up the crossovers. The Alien and Predator meetings were required, of course.  Those creatures battled with every comic character in the Nineties.  I’m pretty sure there was a Hi and Lois strip where Ditto and Dot tried to pull a facehugger off Chip while Trixie was playing with a shoulder cannon.  Seeing Alan Grant team up with John Wagner again to have his old and new butt kicking bikers meet up in Dredd/Lobo was a hoot and a half too.  Of course, Grant & Wagner’s series of Batman team ups was excellent, and provided the world with a Simon Bisley version of “The Nose meets the Chin” years before the Doctor picked up Rory Williams.

With all that background reading I was quite ready to see Judge Dredd on the big screen, and Sylvester Stallone provided a film with just the right combination of over the top violent action and social satire in 1993.

Unfortunately, his Judge Dredd came out in ’95. The movie mentioned above was Demolition Man.

Stallone’s Judge Dredd suffered from the same issues that troubled Green Lantern, Daredevil, and the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie. 

A) Attempting to squeeze in far too much from the character’s long history, needing giant bits of back story shoved in and making it confusing for newcomers:  Rico, Cursed Earth, Angel Family, Long Walk, Mega City politics, penal colonies, the Judge system corrupted, the academy, robot rebellion, and Judge genetic manipulation.

B) Attempting to change/revamp/Hollywoodize far too much of the character’s long history, making it annoying for long time fans:  Dredd takes his helmet off, genetic manipulation is bad, Dredd takes his helmet off, genetic manipulation is a surprise, Dredd takes his helmet off, Dredd learns emotion and compassion, and DREDD TAKES HIS DROKKING! HELMET OFF!

Actors have a serious fetish about their own faces. Almost every super hero movie has far too much “dramatic unmasking” time for the genre.  Hell, in his film -which, if you squint, comes close in tone and content to being the best Judge Dredd adaptation to date - even Robocop removes his mask/helmet and he had it BOLTED TO HIS FREAKIN’ HEAD!  (Yes, I know they used revealing his face to illustrate he retained his humanity, I was just being a butt.)

The one saving grace for the 1995 film was Rob Schneider.  This is not because he played anything resembling Fergie, the character he was named after from “The Day the Law Died”. (Not like that was any different than anyone else in the movie.)  The reason he was the saving grace is he turned what otherwise would have been a terrible adaptation into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Rob acted as though he was clearly aware of how bad the film was around him, and poked fun at it and the other actors mercilessly. The high point was his impression of Stallone himself.
Come to think of it, Armand Asante got off a pretty good one as well.

After waiting seventeen years to wash the smell of cheese off the property, Old Stony Face has hit the theaters again.  This time it’s a British production, as it should be.  (Dredd was originally based on Clint Eastwood – with a dash of David Carradine from Death Race 2000. Basically he’s the poster child of how the typical over-violent American “cowboy/cop” is imagined by our former rulers.)

How was this outing of Mega City One’s most feared lawman as played by Karl “Holy crap! That’s Eomer/Doctor McCoy” Urban ?

Dredd3D was Judge Dredd done right.

By confining a majority of the film to the conflict with a viciously evil; death and damage dealing boss -whose gang is responsible for a very 2000ADish impossible illegal substance – all within a single Mega Block, the story could remain streamlined and accessible.  However, there were enough peeks at the outside world to establish it, and numerous little references for us fans of the comics to recognize, though none blatant or plot-altering enough to distract or confuse newcomers.

The world of Mega City One was an accurate, if not perfect, representation of the comics.  Set in the future, Mega City One occupies a nasty, grimy, irradiated, overpopulated, and riddled with crime and unemployment disaster of a world.  The danger of using too much Sci-Fi tech is that the shininess can overcome the griminess so to speak.  The problem of erring the other way is that the whole notion of it being in the future can get lost.  The changes made from the comics managed to enhance the consistency of the visuals.  The Mega City One seen in the comics has multileveled highways in and around the Mega Blocks and a fair amount of personal flying vehicles.  Keeping the movie Mega City transportation earth bound removes any possibility of “flying above the city” scenes, which always add a sense of freedom, escape and beauty, regardless of how much of a festering pit the land being flown above is.  Similarly, the Judges’ uniforms did away with the bright primary colors from the comics, because that would once again lead to shininess, which really has no place in this nasty post-apocalyptic super megalopolis.

The high level technology was primarily limited to Judges’ equipment, and that was mostly kept subtle.  (OK, the Lawgiver handgun’s “hot shot” and “high ex” rounds were totally the opposite of subtle, but I’ll get to the violence later.)  The Lawmaster bike’s “Crime Scene Mode” was largely off screen, and the various scanner and analysis tools were old and beat up looking, even though they outperformed anything available today.

The satire was another subtle element, not as strong as in the comics but it was there.  Some bits were mostly hidden in the details, such as the dead being picked up by recycling, reactions of bystanders or the events on passing video screens.  Other items were inherent in the world and characters.  Dredd’s unflagging viewpoint is argued against logically by several on both sides of “THE LAW”, but because this is Mega City One, the results of his actions prove him correct.

That statement is one of the key reasons he was done right.  Judge Dredd is unflappable, unstoppable, incorruptible, and completely unchanging in his view of the law.  Therefore, almost ANY character growth or arc, is going to be contrary to his nature.  (Conan has a similar problem that almost all writers other than Robert E. Howard fail to grasp.)  However, in order to have a movie that will engage audiences, some kind of character development is required for good storytelling. 

This is why turning Judge Anderson into a rookie for the film made perfect sense.  In the comics Anderson has a much lighter, more flexible disposition than Dredd. She acts as a humanizing agent for Mega City Law Enforcement in general, and can even show a tiny crack in Dredd’s, hard outer surface occasionally.  (No romance however, another usual Hollywood request that got stuffed this time because the film makers had the brains to check with John Wagner first.) By showing her first day on the streets, she gets to have a full and emotionally developed character arc, while Dredd can maintain his “I am the law!” status and power.

Even with the changes to Anderson, keeping her psychic abilities was very important, because they show for all her lightness and compassion in comparison to the title character, she can be far scarier than he is when she gets pissed off.   Her will wasn’t her only asset, as she displayed the unparalleled armed and unarmed combat skills of a Judge when pushed as well.  Her feats of physical asskickery were only eclipsed by her - literally pants wettingly terrifying - mental ones. 
Lucky stiff.

Another change from the comics was the free use of sexual references and profanity.  These were kind of necessary changes, because in a film with this level of openly shown carnage, phony curse words would sound completely melon-farming stupid.


The violence.

Judge Dredd comics are known and renowned (for lack of a more accurate word) for their violence. 

Did the production team bring that to the big screen?

To provide a starting point for this discussion: 

Reading reviews of other movies, I’ve often stated that the phrase “too violent” must be an oxymoron of some sort. 

Some examples of past movies given this label where I didn’t agree:

Commando, to represent the classic eighties action films, had a ridiculous amount of explosions of things and mostly bloodless deaths, with some brutal dispatching of the main villains.

The Expendables, to represent modern enhanced special effects versions of the same kind of films, had a ridiculous amount of explosions of things with much more visibility on the human side of the damage, brutal dispatching of most of the bad guys, with some seriously gnarly looking special effects to add horrific damage to a fair number of them.

Then…there’s Dredd3D.

Sweet mother of caffeinated monkeys on a trampoline! This was an INSANELY VIOLENT film!

They even managed to toss in a completely in story reason to show most of the frequent brutal dispatching in slow motion, to perfectly recreate the equally brutal  moments from the comic book panels, which are “frozen in time” due to the media they’re in.

An example, while trying not to spoil much:

A scene following, showing and detailing the effects on property and residents of three – count ’em THREE- Gatling guns firing simultaneously through multiple apartments just might crack the top five violent scenes in this gut wrenching destruction fest.

Things explode.

People explode.

Parts of things explode through people

Parts of people explode all over other people. 
(Particularly festive in 3D, well worth the glasses surcharge.)

It packed more “HOLY *random creatively chosen expletive*!” moments for me into an hour and forty minutes than all of the other films I’ve seen in theaters since the last Judge Dredd movie came out - combined. 

This is Judge Dredd, in all his helmet wearing, perpetual frowning, zero tolerance glory.

There was a down side to this accuracy to the world of 2000AD.  Normally, I see comic book movies with my mother and sister, and they are also big fans of shoot ‘em up action films, but they have limits. 

Case in point: Mom cheered during a phone call from college one night. I assumed she was watching a basketball game, but it turned out Steven Segal had just blown someone’s leg off with a shotgun.

But she still gets disturbed thinking about her initial viewing of A Clockwork Orange.

Therefore, I couldn’t really recommend this one to them. (Sorry sis, there were eyeball things, and the frequent 3D internal viscera hurling at your face would have given you a headache.) 

Attending alone was quite a switch after the last comic book midnight premier I attended. I think my theater (the 3D one) had about two dozen people in it. The less crowded regular showing looked to have about as many individuals in it as the number of theaters that the Dark Knight Rises sold out.  Still I’ve been in emptier midnight movies. 

Hopefully it can earn enough for sequels because:

The world has been established.

The audience knows Mega City One.

Dredd retained his awesomeness.

Anderson’s got her powers.

The makers already stated that if enough of us lunatics go see it, we’ll get follow ups with the grimier yet crazier Cursed Earth and a complete divorce from the realistic bent with the Dark Judges.

The film only needed to have the satire amped up to be perfect. The comic book Mega City One has a rather large amount of weird, bizarre or just plain goofy people and places around the always straight Dredd and the other Judges. 

With an increase in those areas already promised in the sequels, let’s start the movement here and now:

 And Mawia too!


Kleeez said...

Long time UK-based 2000AD fan checking in - fantastic article, thanks so much for posting your thoughts!
Really interesting point about the Slo-Mo resembling static media of comic book panels, I'd never really thought of that. Loved hearing of your past experiences reading Judge Dredd - the High School reminiscenes sound hilarious (particularly the sound effects girl!). Brilliant stuff. If you haven't read it yet, I'd really recommend 'Chopper - Song of the Surfer', a Judge Dredd classic. Some say it was 2000AD's finest hour...and who am I to disagree..? May your thrill-power never fade! DROKK ON!

Jeff McGinley said...

May thanx. Similar to my Doctor Who posts, comments coming from the land of Dredd's creation mean a great deal to me, as I feel they confirm that I actually get it.

I've seen Chopper's appearances in some of my old Dredds but have now added "Chopper: Surf-S Up" to my wish list. So thanx again on two fronts.