Rob Schneider in the Apocalypse (Judge Dredd, 1995)

Somebody looked at Sylvester Stallone’s chin and declared him perfect for the role of iconic British comic book character Judge Dredd.  And they were not wrong:

(I know I already showed this…but it seems relevant for the review)

Judge_dredd_movie_poster_1995Anyhow, looking for a story, the filmmakers thought the best approach was to tell it through the eyes of SNL alum Rob Schneider.  He is an ex-convict returning home who gets caught in the crossfire between thugs and Judges.  A little background here.  After a nuclear event society is rebuilt in heavily concentrated cities.  In these cities are massive buildings, communities unto themselves. They are known as Megacities.  Outside of the sprawling cities is a desert wasteland populated by outlaws and mutants called the Scorched Earth.  The Society has combined Police Officers with Judges.  You do not go to court, a Judge simply tells you your sentence and that is that.

The most famous Judge is Judge Dredd.  Dredd has no tolerance for lawbreakers.  The comic is a satirical look at fascist societies (the Eagle emblem is not a coincidence, it is meant to acknowledge both America’s national bird as well as the use of the bird as a symbol by fascist societies).  Of course, fans also like the ultraviolence, making Judge Dredd’s popularity complex.  As Neil Gaiman notes, the comic is one of the rare instances where you have something that is both the very thing being commented on and the commentary itself.

While attempting to hide in a robot to avoid death by gang members or a Judge, Fergie (Schneider) is caught and sentenced for tampering with the robot.  In the meantime, Judge Dredd is framed for murdering a critic of the Judges.  He is sent to the Scorched Earth, where he runs into Fergie.  They return to stop a conspiracy to destroy the Judges and establish a new regime.

Judge Dredd is not very good in its story.  It tries to give some emotional depth to Dredd that ends up feeling odd.  Family angst is not something that drives the character and is an unnecessary addition.  The film also tries to hint at a romantic tension between Dredd and Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) who plays the role of the angel on Dredd’s soldier, pressuring him to be less harsh.

There are some notable things about the film.  The costumes look great.  They feel like they are ripped from the pages of 2000AD.  The sets are also like the strip come to life.  The cities and the Megacity blocks are appropriately broken down and seedy looking and the Scorched Earth barren and unforgiving.  Visually, the film is pretty impressive looking.  There are some nice nods to other 2000AD characters (most notably the use of the ABC Warriors robots).  Mean Angel (a cyborg and member of a cannibal outlaw family) stands out.

The cast includes Max Von Sydow, Diane Lane, and Armand Assante.  Most of these choices are good choices.  Rob Schneider is there as comedic relief, but it is not very organic in the story.  There is one amusing moment where Schneider looks over to Dredd on the prison transport and tries to figure out why he recognizes him…Schneider uses his hand to cover the top of Dredd’s head and recognizes him based on the chin.

No, where the film fails is not in its look.  It’s the story.  Trying to create an origin for Judge Dredd makes all sort of unnecessary explorations of his character.  Dredd does not question the Law.  The Law is his life.  You can have Judge Dredd question the application of the Law, but the character loses meaning if he questions the Law itself.

The biggest issue here is that ultimately, they did not hire Sylvester Stallone to bring Judge Dredd to life.  They hired him to be a stock Stallone Action Hero.  And Stallone delivers his lines as such.  It is not that Dredd does not make jokes…but he does not deliver them as one-liners.  He should always sound deathly serious.  Also? Dredd does not smile.  And most importantly…remember that gag I mentioned with Schneider recognizing Dredd?  That scene should simply not happen.  Judge Dredd is never seen in comics without his helmet.  Never.  I mean NEVER.  And yet, in this film?  He is seen far more without the helmet than in it.  This is because it is a star vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, rather than Stalone making a character live on screen.

Judge Dredd pretty much killed other 2000AD film deals, and frankly, it is obvious why.  The film fails in all the areas where it needs to succeed.  Character and Story.

War Comes Home (Rambo, 2008)

first_blood_4_posterAfter Rocky Balboa started Stallone on a comeback trail, he sought to revisit John Rambo.  This seemed a bit more far fetched and almost funny.  And yet, choosing to Direct John Rambo for the first time, Stallone managed to marry the different tones of the franchise.  Not only did it work?  Rambo is a pretty solid action movie.

Opening with Rambo yet again in a self imposed exile (this time in Thailand).  He is approached by some missionaries who are looking to get some associates out of Burma.  Initially he refuses, but when they try without him, he ends up being unable to ignore them.

Stallone is so buff in this film (20 years after Rambo III) it almost challenges the very serious tone of the film.  He was muscular in the previous films, here he is immense.  But Stallone really brings back the shattered John Rambo who is struggling to find peace.  And it is quite well done.

This is an ultra violent film, to the point the previous films seem somewhat soft.  Rambo still manages to be a one man army, blowing through the opposition with little effective resistance.  And yet, in spite of the extensive violence, Stallone give us a Rambo to root for.  He manages to do so in a way that makes you forget just how implausible his actions are, instead you can sit back and just follow Rambo on his adventure, hope he saves the missionaries and gets away.  The film mostly ignores the two prior sequels (as Rocky Balboa did with the Rocky films) and works nicely as a direct sequel to First Blood.

A New War (Rambo III, 1988)

first_blood_3_movie_posterThe directorial debut of Peter MacDonald (whose had a bigger career as a second unit director, part of films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and the Empire Strikes Back), Rambo III brings us a Rambo once again in a self imposed exile.  But he is brought back out of this “retirement” because the Soviets have captured Trautman (Richard Crenna).

Rambo goes into Afghanistan and teams up with the Freedom fighters.  He also becomes a father figure to a young Afghani boy.  Ticking off the tropes again.  Rambo earns the trust of the Freedom Fighters, so that they are willing to help him, but Rambo needs very little help.  He is going to solve the cold war the old fashioned way…bullets.

Rambo is full on super hero here, unstoppable by even missiles.   This is not surprising, there had already been a Rambo cartoon on in the afternoons back in 1986.  In the cartoon, he was fighting a terror group called S.A.V.A.G.E. (Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion) all over the globe. I am not joking.  It may surprise you to hear that neither Stallone or Crenna reprises their roles.  So the fact that Rambo III is the most cartoonish take on the character should not be a surprise.

Like Part 2, this film is enjoyable and amusing for what it is, even though it lacks the emotion of First Blood.  It is not for lack of trying.  Both sequels tried to approach heavy subjects related to war, but their simplified approach to Stallone’s Rambo is far more angry than broken.  The character suffers for it overall, and the action is pretty by the numbers, but still make for an enjoyable Stallone action film.

Forget the War (Rambo: First Blood Part 2, 1985)

First_Blood_Part_2Three years after First Blood, John Rambo came back.  This time he was freed from Jail to go on a secret government mission in Vietnam, saving POWs.  He is brought in by Richard Crenna’s Col Trautman at the request of Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier).  Directed by George Cosmatos (who went on to direct fan favorite Tombstone as well as Stallone’s Cobra) we get a shift in the type of character and story.

This film ticks off all sorts of tropes, such as a tragic love story, betrayal by the government who hires him and so on.  This film really pushes Rambo towards being a super hero.  He is not merely highly skilled as a fighter…he is unbeatable.  Bullets will miss him, but he will never miss.

First Blood Part 2 revs up the action and general violence, while toning down the tragic aspects of his character.  The focus on POWs, of course, allows some of it to remain, tying it to the first film.  But, tonally speaking, this feels unlike our introduction in First Blood.

The cast is good, though some of the characters are just gun fodder, meant to motivate Rambo.  In some ways, this is the film that moved forward the Stallone Action Era, that made him into the character we think of Stallone as today.

The Unwinnable Fight (First Blood, 1982)

first_blood_posterJohn Rambo, or as we tend to all call him, Rambo, seems like an unstoppable force.  A Vietnam veteran who never really left the war and finds himself pulled into a never-ending series of conflicts.  But his beginning was far simpler.  in the early 80’s we saw Hollywood starting to explore the conflict known as the Vietnam War and especially it’s impact on American Soldiers.

First Blood (adapted from a novel by David Morrell) tells the story of John Rambo…he is wandering America, trying to come to terms with his experiences as a POW.  There is a deeply ingrained mythology of how when soldiers returned from Vietnam they were greeted at airports by being spat upon and protested.  Some research has disputed how much (if any) of this happened.  But it is true that the soldiers returning from Vietnam were not greeted as war heroes.  There were no parades.We did want to just kind of ignore them.

John Rambo begins the story wandering into the small town of Hope, Washington.  He is in town for all of three minutes before being noticed by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who invites him for a ride.  Teasle drops him off at the city limits.  But John is not so quick to give up and walk to the next town.  But after returning he is quickly arrested and brought into the local jail.  There he endures humiliation and disrespect at the hands of officers with no respect for our military men.

John reaches a breaking point and fights his way out of the police station and escapes into the woods.  This creates a standoff, where John Rambo hides in the forest and mountains, crafting weapons and traps until his commanding officer (Richard Crenna) comes into the picture.

This film plays strongly to Stallone’s strengths as a gruff guy searching for healing and respect.  In some ways, it is not a stretch to see similarities to Rocky.  The film is a solid collection of established performers (Dennehy, Crenna and Jack Starrett) and up and comers (Chris Mulkey and David Caruso).  Everyone delivers performances that keep you in the story.

Director Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to Direct Weekend at Bernie’s) shows a solid handle on the action, always keeping a fast pace.  The film manages to be sympathetic to Rambo, while not presenting his actions as being right.  He is a victim who reacts far to swiftly and violently, setting off a chain reaction.  First Blood is a powerful action film with a heart behind it.

The Next Generation (Creed, 2015)

creed-movie-posterAwhile back, when I first heard about Creed, I thought I was hearing a desperate idea of continuing a franchise that had run it’s course and closed out nicely with 2006’s Rocky Balboa.

And yet, it turns out that it was the smartest move they could have made.  Creed opts to focus on the son of the late Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan).  Born of an affair, Adonis is taken in by Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad).  He desires to be a boxer, but is blocked from every direction.  His only outlet is underground Mexican boxing matches.

Ultimately, he moves to Philadelphia and seeks help from a reluctant Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

The film is a reflection of the original Rocky, and driven heavily by the characters.  The chemistry between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is genuine.  Jordan and Stallone forge a bond that is at times heartbreaking and others exhilarating.

This is a strong and terrific film.  It draws you in and keeps your attention.  Creed is an excellent film, worth the watch.

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