From the opening credits, set to the quirky off-kilter sounds of Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul’s “Fallin'”, Stephen Hopkins’ Judgment Night sets itself up to be more than its familiar premise suggests: four yuppies take a wrong turn, wind up on the wrong side of town, and get caught up in a cat-and-mouse game of survival against a murderous drug dealer and his crew. Any simple explanation makes Judgment Night out to be a propaganda film for the benefits of white flight, but Hopkins and screenwriter Lewis Colick deftly subvert expectations every step of the way.
The four yuppies are of varying degrees of social status when we meet them in the afternoon of a trip to a boxing match. Our de facto leader of the friends is Frank, played by Emilio Estevez. Frank is a comfortable suburbanite, a new father and a restless family man who, according to his playfully scolding wife, needs to ditch his college buddies who haven’t grown up at the same rate. His closest friend is Mike (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), forever a bachelor in his red corvette. Jeremy Piven plays Ray, a silver-tongued, incredibly overconfident businessman who shows up with the nights’ transportation: a posh RV he talked off the lot.
Then there is John (Stephen Dorff), Frank’s younger brother, a fill in for a cancellation and bit of a train wreck with his fingerless gloves and short fuse. The quartet set off for the boxing match full of booze and bravado, macho posturing set up high enough to be systematically broken down once things go wrong.
And things go wrong almost immediately. After a road-rage exchange in the middle of freeway traffic, Ray decides to back the RV out of this mess and take a shortcut to the arena. Only the shortcut takes them to the predictably dangerous Other Side of The Tracks. Trash blows across the screen, bums gather around a barrel fire, and before long the quartet of men find themselves in the middle of stolen money and a score to settle.
They hit a kid, and it turns out that kid is trying to get away from Fallon, a low-rent drug dealer played to absolute perfection by Denis Leary. When Fallon kills the kid in front of Frank and his pals – trapped in a crashed RV at this point – his intends to follow through with his most important rule: “no witnesses.”
Judgment Night then becomes a chase across one of the most bleak and borderline dystopian late-night lands of the forgotten, urban Chicago, as Frank and his friends try and outsmart and outrun Fallon and his gun-toting goons. It all sounds so familiar, and perhaps the plot itself is; but this story makes sure to upend a few expectations. Of course, anyone who knows anything about genre thriller has Piven’s Ray justifiably pinned as the first one to die. But these four dudes out of their element aren’t simply checking off traits on a list. Each of them are broken down, and the way they rebuild themselves in the face of true danger shows us who they truly are.
What is so refreshing, even for a movie released 23 years ago, is its reluctance to tread along the same old conventional, racist lines when it comes to heroes and villains. The baddies from the inner city aren’t African-American gang bangers, but a group of (mostly) Irish thugs. As Frank’s foursome traverse the train yards, slums, and sewers to try and escape, they become the ones upsetting this very volatile world, even taking shelter in a black woman’s apartment, therein causing all manner of hell for the tenants of the projects when Fallon and his crew learn of their presence. Its refreshing to see a genre thriller with such standard bones subverting expectations, especially from Hopkins, whose portrayal of Jamaicans in Predator 2 is pretty problematic.
Beyond any social constructs, Judgment Night absolutely sings as a thriller. Hopkins utilizes every nook and cranny of the inner city with the aforementioned slums and sewers and, in an unnerving early scene, a train yard full of eager hobos. As the events of the night unfold, these four men, confident in the masculinity they’ve carefully crafted in their own safe world, find out what it means to fight. All of the big talk and machismo they use to posture themselves within their own inner circle means nothing when Leary’s Fallon comes calling.
Judgment Night, despite the terrific energy and lean direction of Hopkins, came and went without much fanfare. It made just over half of its budget back in October of 1993, and little was heard from it again. In fact, the soundtrack – collaborative rock/rap songs from some of the most 90s of 90s artists – was more popular than the film. But it deserves another look, because it works on so many levels as a genre film and a fresh perspective on things we’ve seen so many times over the years. Seek it out.
Other films in the Archive: Shoot to Kill (1988)