Back in 1993, Emilio Estevez, Dennis Leary, Cuba Gooding Jr., Stephen Dorff, and Jeremy Piven starred in Judgment Night, one of the most poignant and telling movies about the fears of suburban America in the 1990s. Under the radar and from out of nowhere, this films casts a curious modern-day suspicion about the dangers of the civilized world. The message of the film was clear: our cities are lawless. Not Moscow, not Rio de Janeiro, but American cities are lawless. Lead by visionary director Stephen Hopkins (Underappreciated Blog royalty for his film Predator 2 [see below]), Judgment Night so clearly mimics the collective suburban fear held by white America at the time that it should be required viewing in sociology. My only explanation for why this movie was – and subsequently has – gone under unappreciated is that it got lost in the shuffle of blockbuster hits that year including Jurassic Park, Tombstone, Rudy, Philadelphia and the undisputed crown jewel of Sly Stallone’s career, Demolition Man.
As weird as it sounds, Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy, Dennis Leary as a bad guy, these things were all feared in the early 1990s. That is, they registered with America’s youth as being “cool” and registered with the Baby Boomer generation as “dangerous”. How? Well, think about how America was spatially organized in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a time where, other than the metropolises of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the majority of America, specifically white America, still lived in the suburbs. And the only snorkel surbanites had into urban life was through entertainment. Suburban audiences were – in effect – foreign to urban America. Hollywood knew this. So did Hopkins. So, in a stroke of pure genius, who else should lead the audience through this film, a film that chronicles the completely plausible and innocent journey of four friends into the city which turns into journey into hell? Who you say? The fucking coach from Mighty Ducks. The whole reason this movie works is that it is predicated on one simple little thing: a wrong turn. A mistake, that’s it. A mistake by Piven, the asshole, but a simple mistake nonetheless. We all make mistakes and this could all happen to any of us. That’s what baits us into the plot.
Judgment Night is the story of Estevez, his two childhood buddies (Piven and Gooding), and his little brother (Dorff), getting lost in the Chicago ghetto as they take a shortcut on their way to attend a boxing match in the city. As innocuous as it starts, the shortcut proves fatal and the boys end up in hell – that is, being chased through the ghetto by Dennis Leary. The boys, in their rented RV, run across a shooting victim of Leary’s gang and wind up as witnesses that need to be silenced. Estevez the family man, Gooding the playboy, Piven the shyster, and Dorff the fuck-up, each bring a different skill to the table as they play cat and mouse and try to out-wit or out-maneuver Leary. This movie plays like 1994’s Surviving the Game, the last showdown scene in the chemical plant from Robocop, and the on-foot chase scene by Reeves and Swayze from Point Break all fucked while blasting Onxy’s Slam. Judgment Night is on-foot chase scene elite in a decade that did it the best. The 1990s produced the best on-foot chase scenes ever in the history of cinema and it’s absence today is probably the single biggest missing ingredient in post-millennial movies (see the above still shot. God damn!). This movie is amazing for a lot of reasons. There are a few of them:
Jeremy Piven, the asshole – What happened to Piven? Honestly? He made a great asshole: PCU, One Crazy Summer, Singles. Not a likable asshole, like his dumbass role in Entourage, but an asshole. A man’s asshole. These types of characters, those who self-sabotage and create often irrevocable damage that drive plots, are so lacking in film these days. Watch Piven, who is the first to die by Leary’s hands, try to shyst’ his away out of the chase in the rooftop ladder scene.
Dennis Leary and Peter Greene – An interesting choice for antagonists given the climate of suburban American audiences in the 1990s. The director could have easily have chosen black gangsters but, somehow, this plays better. Leary is excellent in his role as the gang leader. Leary is backed by Peter Greene (aka Zed from Pulp Fiction), bad-guy elite, who completes the cast while smoking 100s. Soft packs, I’m sure.
Emilio Estavez – The second best role of the young man’s career. Estavez plays the archetypal disillusioned young father and family man, fraught with conflict over a boring suburban life. During the flick, Estavez is about the only character fighting not only to survive the night, but to return to something, his family. I don’t know what happened to Emilio or why anybody paid more attention to Charlie Sheen outside of his role in Major League, but his aborted career will remain a mystery and tragedy to me and his performance in Repo Man – my favorite movie of all time – a high-water rank for abstract cinema and the inspiration for this blog. However, watch Emilio in this movie, probably the last good movie of his short career.
Brian – Contributor