Dystopian Crime

 

It took a while, with all the volunteer projects lined up, but now it’s time to get back to Cult vs. Mainstream, and – even more overdue – give my thank you to T-kun Unusual Wordsmith III for her generous gift-giving, which I sure didn’t get on top of as fast as Les or Moviefan12.

 

Granted, I don’t have the perfect way to return the favor, since I’m not much of a poet, and I’m hardly the resident expert on the franchises she’s expressed interest in. But luckily, she happened to send me a great suggestion for this series, pointing out that Judge Dredd has been adapted once as a mainstream movie in 1995 and once as a cult movie in 2012. I wasn’t sure at the time, since it did technically break my “same era” rule, but the way to pull it off turned out to be pretty simple: Get another franchise about a bloody avenger and/or a dystopian police force that’s gone from cult to mainstream, instead of mainstream to cult, and pair the respective films for the biggest Cult vs. Mainstream match ever!

 

…So what franchise meets all of the requirements, including release dates that align perfectly with the Judge Dredd movies? The Punisher flicks technically fit the bill, but who cares about those? Even Stallone’s Judge Dredd probably beats anything that series came up with. Well, The Spirit had a made for TV movie in 1987 that isn’t supposed to be too bad, so we might get an interesting match with the Stallone movie, plus a good laugh at watching the 2012 Dredd show up Frank Miller’s version. But I could only kill so much time trying to find a copy of the 1987 film, so that was out. But after desperately resorting to google searches for ideas, I remembered Mad Max, who is a dystopian cop and an antihero, who did go from cult (in the United States at least) to mainstream by the third entry, and whose series is definitely a match for the Judge Dredd franchise. For the release dates to align, I’d have to wait for next year’s Fury Road, but there’s no way I’m waiting another 8 ½ months to get on this. And Mad Max is one of those series that’s been so influential, comparisons to any sci-fi film are justifiable. It’s just too perfect. So until Mad Max 2 and Fury Road can team up for a rematch, my present to T-kun Unusual Wordsmith III is:

 

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Vs.

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Judge Dredd: “Judge Dredd wants to be both a legitimate violent action flick and a parody of one, but director Danny Cannon fails to find the necessary balance to make it work,” says the Tomatometer consensus. True. Instead, the two sides result in one goofy, lightweight action flick that doesn’t add “hard to watch” to its list of crimes. It seems to simultaneously care too much and too little, one minute giving soapbox speeches on the significance of “the law,” which Judge Dredd is appalled to be accused of breaking and the next having him gun down innocent Judges with no sense of regret. But it got a good laugh out of me more than once, and at least two of them were definitely on purpose.

 

Seeing the 2012 Dredd makes you realize how much further this version could have gone in convincing us of the need for law enforcement like the judges, who can execute any criminal they judge guilty on the spot. The futuristic city in this version is like a blander, polished version of Blade Runner, and we’re told that crime would be too much for ordinary police officers, even though the Judges we’re shown seem like overkill. They have all the firepower they need, and the city looks like it’s in good shape, more or less. Why is it necessary to forgo courts with actual juries?

 

Then again, it might be a good thing that the movie doesn’t present the strongest case for Judges. As another dystopian film that wants to attack its very premise, to criticize values that would lead to such a future, it also doesn’t make the strongest case against them. It provides “what if” scenarios in which the system is corrupted by the villains, shows us an exception to the righteousness of swift justice by punishing Dredd’s comic relief sidekick (Rob Schneider) for attempting to save his own life, and of course, attempts a tragic irony in which Dredd is convicted by the very law he “worships.” They’re all convincing reasons that such a system isn’t right, mainly because we knew as much in the first place, and we haven’t seen the strongest evidence to the contrary. But even so, the movie never goes so far as to have the heroes challenge the system head on, let alone change it, and defeating the villains doesn’t require Dredd to confront any ethical questions. No bold statements here, just a lot of robot enforcers, gun battles, and a vaguely-motivated evil twin/clone of Dredd (who picks up a sidekick played by Joan Chen so everyone has someone to fight in the climax) keeping him, his love interest, and his Rob Schneider busy. To be fair, that’s plenty of mental strain on its own, and none of these guys are presented as the type to handle much more.

 

If only the action were anything noteworthy, the movie could have secured its place as an entertaining blockbuster, but the bullets here fly without a sense of weight or urgency, complete with video game sound effects that make it feel like exactly that. There are some decent ideas, like an airborne motorbike chase with Dredd on a malfunctioning vehicle and a family of high-tech cannibals in the desert, in a scene Roger Ebert actually did compare to Mad Max. In these, there are a few nice shots, and one perfect moment for Dredd’s trademark line “I knew you’d say that,” but the result is still just okay.

 

In short, like Stargate, Bicentennial Man, Baby Geniuses, and Waterworld, Judge Dredd is a 90s sci-fi movie that’s all premise, noteworthy for presenting an idea you will remember and won’t get elsewhere but not for much else, with its unremarkable delivery. It’s a shame to look back and realize how many of these movies don’t hold up. Still, at least this one is good natured and energetic enough to be entertaining, despite and because of its stupidity. And I do like watching Stallone be funny on purpose, with everyone always a little too eager to laugh at him and not with him due to the illiterate thugs he’s known for playing. Here, he’s in on the joke, and he knows why it’s funny. If I were writing for a newspaper and this movie were in theaters, I would never suggest paying to see it. But on my modest scale of 1 to 10, flicks like this which you’re bound to stumble across at some point are what the middle-of-the-road, vaguely positive scores are for. Court is adjourned.

 

Mad Max: There are two things everyone seems to agree on when it comes to the Mad Max trilogy: The main reasons to show up are the vehicle chases and machismo, and the highlight is film #2, The Road Warrior. With that in mind, I wasn’t really sure how much I could expect from the series’ low budget beginnings, especially since most of its acclaim only promises that its action was impressive in 1979. It’s not unheard of for a movie’s claim to fame to be doing something first more so than doing it well.
Luckily, even by today’s standards, the car chases aren’t half bad, especially the highlighter right at the top. They’re simple, but they do a good job at giving you the fast-paced play by play. And a couple of the stunts really are a sight to behold. They at least carry themselves.

 

But I wasn’t sure I could say the same for the movie between them at first. We have the decaying world of the “near future,” where society is sparser and biker gangs are opposed only by ineffective road police. We have Gibson’s Max, the force’s best driver, who fears he’s becoming a sociopath himself after plowing down a few too many criminals. We have Toecutter, the gang leader played with gleeful insanity by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who vows vengeance on Max after he kills a friend. And we have the usual rape, murder, arson, and rape that comes with the territory. (Although from what I gleamed, I think one scene had the, eh, unique idea to imply that even if #1 and #4 don’t match their sexual preference, the central gang revels in any crime.) I’ll assume it all was in-and-of-itself wowing at the time. It’s all shown more for its own sake than to get us invested in anything, laying the groundwork without building on itself.

 

Act 2 is where the story starts moving, with Max going on holiday with his infant son and wife Jessie, a loving, genuine woman who supports Max even when his job takes a bitter turn. The vengeful gang follows them, and I had a pretty good guess as to where this was going. After all, something has to happen to turn him into Mad Max, right?

 

Sure enough, Jessie and her son leave for some ice cream and find themselves barred from their car by the gang, face to face with an eager Toecutter. Then something strange happens. Toecutter takes her hand and lifts her ice cream to his mouth in the most perverse way he can manage, and Jessie hesitates before slowly giving him an appreciative smile. Toecutter smiles back, giving the desperate Jessie her cue to knee him in the groin and fling open the car door, speeding back to get Max and making the only successful getaway drive in the movie. The gang follows them for a portion that plays like a home invasion thriller, with nimble Jessie spotting them and Max patrolling the area with his shotgun. Okay, now I was interested.

 

So what does this amount to? Simple. When Jessie and the son go the way we were expecting after all, it’s not obligatory. It’s in spite of the fact that she did everything right, in spite of the fact that she and Max are genuinely good together. Fate chose to damage the one perfect thing this dystopia permitted him. So when he takes his revenge, it’s not cathartic. It’s bitter. There’s excitement to be found when the gang proves tricky, but when it’s all over, the tone isn’t triumphant.

 

That Jessie’s fate is technically ambiguous goes by so fast (without being hinted at in the sequels) that many have interpreted it as a blank meant to be filled in with the obvious, as though the answer is a necessity. My interpretation is that it’s exactly what they say, nothing more or less, and Max does not sever his ties to society because it’s all he could think to do. He warned us that he was teetering on the edge, and the shove he gets is more than enough. By the end, he’s Mad Max through and through. Still, the fact that it feels so in need of a sequel, that it still doesn’t feel like its own resolution, good or bad, keeps me from adding that extra point I was considering.

 

The Better Movie:

Judge Dredd:

Pros:
– Fewer slow spots
– More humor
– More visual variety

Cons:
– Blatant logical fallacies and silliness
– Weaker, less memorable action
– Weaker characterization

 

Mad Max:

Pros:
– All practical effects and stunts
– Stronger sense of setting
– More brutal, memorable action
– Stronger vision of characters and their progression
– More historical significance as a movie

Cons:
– Takes longer to gain momentum
– More dreary and humorless
– Less sense of resolution

 

By reputation, you’d think this wouldn’t even be close, which for the most part, it isn’t. But looking back, there is something to be said for the simple entertainment that Judge Dredd had easier access to. It had the resources, and it wasted no time in providing the laughs and effects-fueled action that go down easy. Mad Max had nothing but visions and small time expertise, and here in the first entry, it spends as much time discovering the keys to its hardcore entertainment as it does creating it. None-the-less, when it’s all said and done, Mad Max creates something stronger, something more intense, more exciting, and more memorable. When set against each other at full speed, Judge Dredd can only spin right off the road.

 

Final Scores:
Judge Dredd: 6/10
Mad Max: 7/10

 

Winner:
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So “cult” takes part one of this battle, in a demonstration of how such movies often have the motivation that mainstream movies lack, content to coast on their resources. But in part 2, we get to the real battle, with Judge Dredd going back to the drawing board with a vengeance and Mad Max bringing back the same talent with more experience and a higher budget.

 

Cult: 2
Mainstream: 2

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