Thursday, May 27, 2021

Send In The Clones

Sooner or later, probably sooner, I’ll go back to the movies. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will. Not sure why I’m taking my time with the return but maybe it just has to feel right. I keep thinking about how the world is opening back up the but a place like the Cinerama Dome remains closed, part of the Arclight/Pacific announcement that the chain will be permanently closing, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to that place. After the past year anything is possible but I have to believe that the Dome isn’t going to go away. I have to believe that. The place means too much. To me, to other people, to this town and its history. This is the place that opened back in 1963 with the premiere of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD before running for 67 weeks, the place where I saw THE AGE OF INNOCENCE on opening day, the place where I saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD on opening day, the place where I saw THE MASTER in 70mm twice on opening weekend each time in a packed house, the place where I saw the Sidney Lumet remake of GLORIA on opening weekend in a theater that was practically empty. There was also something else that I’ve been thinking about but I’ll get to that shortly and the very idea of this glorious place never reopening is simply unacceptable.
Way back when I first started going there, the Dome was all by itself, next to nothing but a giant parking lot that I would traverse, having parked on the street to save money, on my way to see THE CABLE GUY or DONNIE BRASCO or whatever, knowing that something would take up that space eventually. Inside the actual theater it was a glorious place with that enormous curved screen enveloping you, making every film that played on it more special, more epic. Admittedly, not every movie worked on that screen with the curvature but when the right film was there it felt like there was no other place to see a movie that made any sense. By 2002 the Arclight was up, becoming one giant complex so I grew to love that place too and together this became just about the best and most exciting place in Los Angeles to go to the movies with memories there over the past few decades that I will cherish. And through it all, the Cinerama Dome is the most special part. There’s nowhere else like it. Going over everything I’ve seen there through the years in my head—a reissue of EL CID was the first, not a bad way to start—one fond memory is for a film that never actually played there. It was some sort of advance screening, maybe for press and media but who knows, of the Sylvester Stallone JUDGE DREDD exactly two weeks before it opened in June 1995. Even at that late stage playing to a packed house the film was actually still unfinished with credits missing (opening or closing or maybe both, who can remember) as well as at least one big difference. Maybe it’s not all that good a movie but it is the sort of thing you want to see at the Cinerama Dome, the sort of reason the theater is there in the first place.
It feels a little forgotten but JUDGE DREDD comes from a time before the comic book movie explosion so the people making it apparently felt the need to explain such a concept with a montage of Judge Dredd covers over the opening credits. Watching the sequence now makes me think of the Spider-Man segments back on THE ELECTRIC COMPANY but the film which follows isn’t quite as educational. It’s entertaining in an empty calorie sort of way but it’s also kind of a loud mess, lots going on in every scene but little of it sticks around long enough to make an impression, a giant sense of scale felt in the imagery while still playing like it was sliced down to around ninety minutes as if it knows we’ve got things to do and places to be which, in fairness, we probably did in 1995. As a completely honest admission, I remember liking the film that night. Maybe I was just younger, maybe it was the excitement of that advance screening. Seeing it again about a month later (at an AMC way down in Santa Monica, which was nowhere near as impressive) caused me to think that mayyyyyybe I’d overrated it slightly. But this happens to all of us. Revisiting JUDGE DREDD for the first time in some years it’s not that I think the film is all that good but there is a sense of scale to the jumble that it is which makes me feel a little nostalgic for the days before CGI took over everything. The film has actual sets, for one thing, so everything feels tangible and since the comic book formula hadn’t been cracked yet this gives the film a sense that at least it’s trying lots of different things to see what sticks. It’s got way more machine gun fire than anyone ever needs but there is a certain enjoyment to the mess at least in small increments. It also helped that my first viewing was at that particular theater. We were more innocent then. At least I was.
There is a plot in JUDGE DREDD, but also a lot of noise surrounding it. Far in the future with the planet turning into a wasteland known by all as The Scorched Earth, much of humanity resides in what are now called Mega Cities with massive populations where the huge surge in crime has caused the traditional justice system to be replaced by street Judges, part cop but very much also judge, jury and sometimes executioner. The most famous and powerful is the feared Judge Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) who never has any doubts about the criminals he passes sentence on, living or dead. When a TV news reporter who has been investigating Dredd’s methods is killed he is arrested for the crime and with falsified evidence is quickly convicted, not knowing that one of the people behind this is the mysterious Rico (Armand Assante), who he shares a little known past with. Also in league with Rico is crooked Judge Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow) looking to replace Dredd’s mentor Chief Justice Fargo (Max von Sydow) and take over the Council of Judges. After being banished to a penal colony Dredd is able to escape with help from fellow convict Fergie (Rob Schneider) and once the two of them are back in the city they team up with Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), Dredd’s friend and defender at his trial, to track down who set him up in the first place and uncover the full extent of Rico’s ultimate plan.
To get another admission out of the way, I have pretty much zero awareness of the Judge Dredd comic and even the better received DREDD reboot from a few years ago isn’t something that stuck with me beyond the fact that I was ok with it. Released by Hollywood Pictures, gone but still not forgotten, the 1995 version feels like it uses the comic book as mostly a jumping off point to make a the biggest sci-fi/action summer movie imaginable, sort of ROBOCOP set in a future that’s a cross between BLADE RUNNER and Tim Burton’s version of Gotham City (production design by Nigel Phelps, previously the art director of the 1989 BATMAN). But it’s also very much a Sylvester Stallone vehicle and in the end wants to be that most of all with the mask that always covers the main character in the comic (so I’m told) being removed about fifteen minutes in. The two words that come to mind when thinking of the film are Loud and Expensive, loud in terms of all the gunplay, expensive in terms of all the sets and special effects and star power. For a few minutes at the start when the film takes Fergie on his flight through the city during the opening credits the sense of scale is genuinely impressive giving it a feeling of excitement that primes us for the world to come it feels like it might be more than this. Looking at it now feels a little like a preview of the city planet Coruscant in the STAR WARS prequels and the overall look to the effects isn’t as advanced as it would be just a few years later but the heightened feel of the images brings a kick of excitement to the moment as if it’s getting primed for some other futuristic adventure instead of the one we’re actually about to see.
Directed by Danny Cannon (who went on to direct I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER and lots of TV including the CSI pilot), there’s a lot of visual clutter which makes the look inconsistent but at least it’s active. And the cluttered writing credits (story by Michael De Luca and William Wisher, screenplay by William Wisher and Steven E. de Souza, from the comic book by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra) are fitting for a story that’s pretty cluttered too, rushing through moments of breathless exposition, speechifying and imagery which gives the impression that the script went through many, many drafts to nail down the necessary story beats but in the end wants to pay more attention to coming up with all the one liners (“Who says politics is boring?” says the bad guy as he blows away the entire council or bad guy Joan Chen spitting “Bitch!” at good guy Diane Lane who replies, “Judge Bitch!”) instead of making the plot compelling.
That kinetic feel now seems very much a piece of nineties would-be blockbusters with cinematography by Adrian Biddle (ALIENS, THELMA & LOUISE and later the 1999 THE MUMMY) that always gives it a fittingly epic feel but the pacing is so rushed, moving from one set piece and plot point to the next that the general feel is all over the place. The grandiose quality of the world’s gritty design has weight but it doesn’t match up to the goofier elements, especially the uniform on Stallone and the other Judges designed by Gianni Versace that feels so ridiculously stylized it doesn’t seem to have much to do with everything around it making me wonder if this film is one of the reasons why such costumes in later comic book movies, like in X-MEN just a few years later, decided to drain the comic book feel out of everything to make them seem more grounded and ‘real’. That wasn’t quite as big a deal back then and even though lack of reality isn’t the problem with JUDGE DREDD it still has too much going on to develop any sense of consistency, parts feeling out of a satirical comic book while others feel totally straight faced in a big action movie sort of way. The sense of scale is impressively big with a genuine sense of craftsmanship felt in all those giant sets and there’s a lot to appreciate in the design especially something like the giant ABC Warrior robot commandeered by Rico that is something that would definitely be CGI these days. It’s a silly concept the film doesn’t really do much with but just seeing it there actually able to interact with the actors is impressive all on its own.
For Sylvester Stallone, this came in the middle of his mid-90s semi-resurgence, right between the sleazy fun of THE SPECIALIST from the previous fall and Richard Donner’s overlong ASSASSINS later that year. More than any other of his vehicles from the period, JUDGE DREDD feels like a concept where he doesn’t entirely belong no matter how much it was reworked to accommodate him. Maybe the basic concept shouldn’t have been a star vehicle for anyone, Stallone or not, but the plot still seems tailor made for his persona with the basic structure of being framed for murder, sent away, then escaping with buddy/sidekick and finding his way back for the big confrontation with the main bad guy never all that different from TANGO AND CASH (or being thrown into prison at the start of DEMOLITION MAN, or being let out of prison at the start of the second RAMBO or being in prison for all of LOCK UP), trying to squeeze the Stallone comeback narrative of so many of his films into a sci-fi/comic book world whether it belongs or not. Judge Dredd stands in the middle of the street during his first appearance bellowing “I AM THE LAW!” to the criminals above and it feels meant to be iconic or at least a spin on his first appearance in something like COBRA but it plays like he hasn’t been let in on the joke yet.
There are ideas buried in the script to go with Dredd’s inner turmoil, especially getting him to learning what the idea of justice really is and how he pre-judges someone like Fergie without a second thought but they’re either the wrong ideas or they’re being placed into a movie that doesn’t have much use for them so if the character has even learned anything by the end the movie doesn’t bother to tell us, it just needs to reestablish him as the strongest force in this future dystopia, the one person who can be counted on to protect the innocent, or something, and prevent this futuristic fascist world from becoming…an even more fascist world, I guess. Much of the system he serves has been destroyed with a pretty high body count by the end but that barely seems to matter. Lest we forget, this film isn’t ROBOCOP, a film that was not only perfect but more than anything was ultimately about a person trying to recover his humanity in a futuristic hellscape. JUDGE DREDD has the hellscape but feels like it’s really about Stallone being Stallone, the special effects and all that machine gun fire. Even the massive production doesn’t always feel consistent with a few daytime sequences filmed on those enormous sets meant to represent Mega City with sunlight somehow getting in there, make them look like enormous sets and remind me how the likes of the more noirish BLADE RUNNER kept so much mystique by being set mostly at night.
When Paul Verhoeven directed ROBOCOP, a film that didn’t have to depend on one single personality in the lead, he brought to it a deadly combination of the inner turmoil the lead character was going through with the nastiness of its satire and the collision of tones worked beautifully, making it a film that became even richer over no matter how many repeat viewings. JUDGE DREDD has an off kilter sense of humor around the edges of the thing; the roving gang of cannibals out in the Cursed Earth that attacks Dredd and Fergie makes it briefly feel like a Sam Peckinpah film in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi world as well as the street corners named after Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen for reasons that I can’t imagine. Plus when Rico says, “Send in the clones,” to introduce the new army he’s creating, well, it’s nice to know that a futuristic bad guy has an appreciation for Stephen Sondheim. Stallone even seems ok with how appropriately ridiculous in the outfit but since he’s not in it much that doesn’t really matter. Having him run around without it so much of the time gives the feeling that the film takes so much of the goofiness of the concept seriously to the point that not much of it can be taken seriously at all and there’s never a reason to really care about anything.
Judges are assassinated, Rico chomps on a cigar and kills a bunch of people, a plan involving clones to take over the city becomes clear, Dredd and Fergie outrun a fireball, there’s a chase on flying motorbikes with Rob Schneider joking that he has to clean his seat and it all goes by so fast you barely notice any of it. The movie spends so much time building up the clones that are seen briefly while coming to life then presumably burn up in the climactic explosions that quickly occur, or at least they’re just forgotten about. There’s enough striking imagery to suggest that Danny Cannon, not even thirty when he made this, has the right sort of directorial eye whether the husk of the Statue of Liberty where the climax takes place, Von Sydow setting out on the long walk into the Cursed Earth when he makes his greatest sacrifice or even just the way the shape of Stallone’s face goes with the mask in the few scenes he actually has it on. Not to mention the whole anamorphic vibe that always helps the thing seem appropriately enormous. Maybe that’s why it came to mind when I was thinking about the Cinerama Dome, a place that would be nothing without a film showing there, even a piece of junk like this. It’s a theater that was made for this sort of movie, even if it’s not very good and that sense of scale is felt in every scene. Hoping for that feeling is one of the reasons why we go to the movies to begin with. Or at least why we go to something like this even when we suspect it’s not going to live up to our dreams.
I could also point out that in the year 2021 there’s not much use for a movie venerating a character like Judge Dredd, even in the service of a futuristic dystopia that needs saving. The plot is about teaching him what he hasn’t bothered to learn but in the end we know everything he does is for the greater good anyway. So post-1995, it feels like there’s not much to say about JUDGE DREDD. If anyone, like the writers, tried to make the film critical of the concept there’s not much of the idea left. Before he’s killed, Mitchell Ryan’s reporter points out that maybe the main council of judges should be dissolved which is exactly what happens indicating the film knows he’s right but that doesn’t seem like it matters either. It’s a film I have a fond memory of seeing under heightened circumstances but also a weird case where it isn’t very good, doesn’t have much to say and there isn’t even that much to say to defend it yet I don’t mind it all that much. It’s fast. It’s kinda fun. There’s a lot going on, enjoyable character actors, it’s a reminder of when movies actually built sets and even the early digital work still has a kick to it. It’s also kinda dumb and after watching it a few times for writing this I don’t feel too much need to revisit it again any time soon. To say it could have been called GENERIC 90S SCI-FI/ACTION MOVIE is a little harsh but it gets the point across that JUDGE DREDD never becomes its own unique thing.
The cast seems into it, I’ll give it that. Sylvester Stallone is as committed to the role as he always is even if something like the running gag of his saying “I knew you’d say that” never really clicks. But he seems determined enough to go big which means that Armand Assante, especially in their scenes together, is more than happy to go even bigger so when he shouts “LAWWWW!!!!” right back at Stallone it’s like he’s throwing the entire theme of the movie in his face. In that sense, everyone seems to know what they’re there to do even if it’s not very much; Diane Lane is earnest and determined, Jurgen Prochnow is deadly serious, Max Von Sydow gets the big speech about the meaning of justice and is as distinguished as you’d expect, Joan Chen seems more than ready to play a bad guy except she doesn’t get to do much beyond that big fight with Lane during the climax. Even Rob Schneider brings the right sort of energy, I’m just not sure he needs to be here unless it’s to remind us that he co-starred with Stallone in DEMOLITION MAN (which is better, just for the record) but the main issue is that the movie can’t seem to decide if he’s the comic relief or an audience surrogate co-lead. A few familiar faces like James Remar playing a very James Remar role and Scott Wilson, bringing a nice spin to what feels like a Dennis Hopper part in his brief appearance as one of the cannibals, are uncredited for their small roles which adds to this eclectic feel of what the hell are these people doing in this movie while also giving the impression that maybe this plot could continue to spiral off into even more unexpected directions even if it barely has time to do it before the 95 minutes are up.
My guess is the unfinished state of the film that night at the Cinerama Dome meant that the completion went way down to the wire before the film’s release on June 30, the same day APOLLO 13 opened. One additional sign of post-production issues could be that Jerry Goldsmith was set to do the music before dropping out for whatever reason, leaving behind only an enjoyably propulsive theme found in the film’s brief teaser trailer, a pretty tantalizing glimpse at what he would have done even if I don’t mind the absurd sense of majesty that Alan Silvestri brought to his crack at the final score. And, for the record, the big difference in the film that night, at least the one I remember, was that (spoiler for a different ending, I guess) the climax included the death of Rob Schneider’s Fergie after being mortally wounded by the giant ABC Warrior robot, pausing for a moment as Dredd leans down to say some final words to him followed Fergie saying, “You are the law…” and he keels over, dead. Pretty sure one of the first things I said to my friend after the movie was, “They killed off the comic relief?” Which I guess would be why the release print of the film cuts to him alive and cracking jokes while being led away on a stretcher, even if the final movie never bothers to pay off the plotline of Dredd refusing to apologize for wrongly judging him at the beginning. Considering how noisy the movie is, nobody probably cared.
The story behind showing this version to the public mere days before release is something I’ve always been curious about. All this seems important somehow, at least to my own history of seeing films in this town. The Cinerama Dome is part of that, on this night and many others, a place that I dream of going back to and, in the end, this memory means as much as anything else I ever saw there. I miss going to the movies. I miss movies I used to go see. Even something like JUDGE DREDD. It’s not going to be what I see on my first visit back to the movies, or on that day somewhere in the future when I return to this particular theater, but I could still do a lot worse.

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