Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
One of the more fun aspects of the boom in movies based on comic books and graphic novels is that we have, with all the success of these films, expanded our concepts of what a “comic book movie” really means. We have comic book movies that are downtrodden and depressing, comic book movies that are about villains, comic book movies that exist to make fun of the concept of a comic book movie in the first place. We’ve been able to have all these because we have a whole decade-plus of comic book movies to work with and draw upon; the more there are, the more they force us to expand our horizons.
In 1995, we were not there yet. And for proof, look no further than Judge Dredd, which came out on June 30 of that year, 25 years ago this week. Based off a sly, subversive comic book, the movie began with big dreams and high concepts, a way to tell a different story in a different way using familiar tropes; sure, Judge Dredd should be a good guy, but the idea of a man walking around as judge, jury, and executioner is actually really scary, and with the right actor and the right tone, you could do something pretty powerful, pretty funny, and pretty exciting. And if not every comic book movie had to be A Big Comic Book Movie, Judge Dredd might have had that opportunity.
But it was 1995, not 2020, so this Judge Dredd had Sylvester Stallone in the helmet — a helmet he kept taking off — countless reshoots, and a wacky supporting character played by Rob Schneider. If you haven't seen it, you can probably guess what happened.
Why was it a big deal at the time? Sylvester Stallone is nearly as famous at this point for his flops as he is his successes, so it’s worth noting that in 1995, he was actually on kind of a nice roll. After a run of lousy comedies (Oscar, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!, even Tango & Cash) and the worst Rocky movie (Rocky V), Stallone got back to action and scored two legitimate hits: Cliffhanger and Demolition Man. In a perfect world, Judge Dredd could merge those two sides, showing off deadpan comedic chops while also still kicking a**, action-wise.
The problems showed up immediately. The film was initially far too violent, so much so that it had to be submitted to the MPAA several times just so it wouldn’t get an NC-17 rating. Then Stallone — who had worked with Versace to design the costume, though you can certainly make the argument they still didn’t get it right — got involved and tried to trim it all the way to a PG-13 rating. You can imagine how much cutting was done at that point. It’s no wonder director Danny Cannon eventually backed off whatever version was released: The dark version he imagined had become an action-comedy — and a limp one at that.
What was the impact? Word got out quickly about all the reshoots and behind-the-scenes problems: The movie was a huge flop its first weekend. How much of a flop? Well, it finished fifth its opening weekend, behind Apollo 13, the third weekend of both Pocahontas and Batman Forever, and fellow opener Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. Not only did it make less money than another summer actioner Congo and Clint Eastwood-Meryl Streep romance The Bridges of Madison County, it somehow got outpaced by the Billy Crystal romance Forget Paris.
Judge Dredd immediately ended Stallone’s hot streak and led to a series of Stallone movies you probably already forgot existed, from Assassins to Daylight to Get Carter to Driven. Stallone arguably didn’t get his mojo back until The Expendables 15 years later.
Has it held up? People didn’t like it much then, and it’s still pretty terrible today. Stallone doesn’t really understand what makes Dredd so fascinating, the movie has no consistent tone, and it ends up feeling like more of a mishmash of competing, dull buddy cop comedies than a superhero story. And seriously, Rob Schneider is absolutely terrible in this thing.
Though it is worthwhile for this behind-the-scenes moment:
The sets aren’t awful, all told, and you can see why someone might have liked this comic back in the day — which is probably why the 2012 reboot of the franchise, Dredd, with Karl Urban in the lead role, is so much more fun and smart. That movie not only had the comic book to work from, it had this very film to look at. This version works as a handy instructional guide on what not to do. The 2012 version learns that lesson well. Well enough that you can forget this movie entirely.