Before watching the movie:
I expect this movie to be a lot like RoboCop. A police state dystopia set in the near future that is now both uncomfortably dated and also overly optimistic about technological advances.
I’m not sure if Dredd is a satire or just a warning, but I know the point of him is that the degree of force he and other law enforcement are allowed to use is meant to be far beyond excessive. I don’t know if that carried through into the movie, or into fan understanding of the comic or the movie. Starship Troopers is mostly loved for the hyperviolence it was meant to be satirizing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same happened to Dredd.
After watching the movie:
A hundred years or so from now, planetwide climate destruction forced the human race to mostly cluster in overcrowded megacities, overrun with too much violent crime for the existing justice system to keep up with. The government instead commissioned a more brutal force of Judges, military-armed police officers with license to use any degree of force necessary to bring law and order, to adjudicate and sentence suspects on the spot, and if necessary, execute capital offenders. Among these Judges, Joseph Dredd is the most effective, but most brutal, setting records for summary executions. Judge Dredd is the Law. Then a jailed former Judge escapes from prison and frames Dredd for double murder with irrefutable evidence. Dredd’s mentor steps down as Chief Justice in order to spare him from execution and protect the secret of the Janus Project. Which is all according to plan for his successor, who has a more totalitarian vision of the law.
I was actually fairly impressed with the futurism on display. For one thing, this movie was made later than I thought, so it isn’t as dated as I expected (about eight years after RoboCop), at least not yet. It’s still a 21-year old movie, but the main sign of the times I saw was the screens being square and tube-driven. The technology is otherwise not that far off, aside from the Lawgiver pistols being able to hide numerous rounds of several different kinds of ammunition somewhere, but that’s not much removed from most fictional firearms that hold as many shots as the plot needs them to hold.
The social commentary felt very strong in the first two acts, but eventually withered in deference to getting the good guys and bad guys to fight. Dredd is challenged by a guy he wrongly sentenced as to how, if the Law can’t make mistakes, he was able to be framed, but that question is never really explored. I never got the idea that Dredd learned anything about the difference between Law and Justice, even though that is the central question of the world presented, the world where the government would rather declare war on its own citizens than do more to address the problems that turn people to crime. They pump ridiculous amounts of resources into combating violent crime and when that doesn’t work, their best solution is to make more crimes capital offenses.
Dredd never really seems to have a reason to keep his allies around him, and his allies don’t have much reason to stand by him, but they keep hanging around each other and all seem to just be together because nobody’s splitting up. Fergie, the hacker, seems to stay involved because they were paying Rob Schneider to be on screen and that’s about it. Judge Hershey was introduced as clearly a romantic interest, but then for almost the entire movie they play as just colleagues, friends maybe, so I thought she might escape that role, only for it to be suddenly reasserted at the very end. Still, a very capable character for an antihero’s love interest.
This seems like a movie that forgot its source material in creative differences and ended up not knowing what it wanted to be. The director wanted it to be a bloodbath, Stallone wanted a PG-13 action comedy. Nobody got what they wanted, because except for, debatably, Rob Schneider being an awkwardly-inserted comic relief. I’m fine with the level of gore being where it is, but in chasing the inoffensive action comedy, it seems like the weighty themes were forgotten, and the weighty themes are what I liked best.