On route toward a sold-out sporting event, amidst their fully loaded Winnebago rental, four childhood friends (Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven, Stephen Dorff) veer off a jammed metropolitan expressway in hopes of locating a potentially unrealized shortcut through Chicago’s urban-inner city district. As the friends drive around aimlessly, in search of direction, a severely injured petty thief unexpectedly throws them off course by valiantly leaping in front of their moving vehichle. Thinking they might have accidentally hit the young man, the gang diligently helps the wounded kid into the Winnebago, however, their noble actions are drastically interrupted when a band of shadowy thugs shows up to spitefully extract the scared punk from the do-gooder’s grasp so that Fallon (Dennis Leary), the seedy group’s fast-talking “kingpin” boss, can sadistically interrogate him. Frozen in fear, the four friends witness Fallon as he cold bloodedly executes the pleading kid, for stealing, and then methodically turns his attention toward the petrified group of innocent bystanders. The “shell-shocked” companions quickly acknowledge that they are undoubtedly next on Fallon’s hit list causing them to speedily spring into fleeing action, franticly trying to out run, out hide, and out smart the merciless gangsters who want them dead.
Released in 1993, Judgment Night, at least in my eyes, accounts for one of the best, most effective, thrillers ever put on film. While many of today’s contemporary suspense films seem to depend on an overwhelming, unrealistic use of shoddy CGI combined with shamelessly praying upon some form of post 911 fears shaped by an evidently “old school” plotline that has been knowingly gutted and carelessly regurgitated, Judgment Night simply basks in its own ability to keep the action propelled forward within a simplistic “it could happen to you” realm of plotline plausibility.
Any ordinary Joe who’s ever taken an unforeseen walk, or spontaneous shortcut through unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory can certainly relate to the frenzied “do or die ” scenario that the film’s typically normal protagonists are suddenly thrown into. Having witnessed such an incredibly foreign act as murder take place before their very own eyes, the mortified group of friends are then savagely forced to flee for their lives, on the run within an area of the city that holds no meaning to them. Trapped within an urbanized-ghetto setting, the type of environment that guys like them only read about in the newspaper, the friends are plunged into a cat and mouse game of survival of the fittest that never lets up until the last and final bullets are ultimately fired.
While the film can indeed be criticized for possessing a narrative that is too thinly drawn, I can assure you that whatever the movie lacks in plot, it makes up for in its expertly crafted sense of executed suspense and action. Draped within dreamlike tints of daunting, malfunctioning, hallucinogenic colors and foreboding, looming shadows that threaten to abduct the film’s viewers into the setting’s own uninviting, crime infested alleyways, director Stephen Hopkins, a filmmaker whose track record seems to consist of random “must sees” and unmistakable flops of frigid crap, fuses such an amount of gritty, slightly heightened, surrealistic, style into the film’s Chicago “Projects” setting that we ultimately, without question, buy into the world that has been dealt. Watching the respectively ordinary group of middle-class suburbanites scurry across dilapidated apartment complexes, vacant sewers, and “turffed” out gang streets, the “real horror” aspect of this film becomes tremendously apparent. Thrust into anever dreamed imaginable, within the realities of their everyday lives, it is this exact volatile marriage between two very real, contrasting worlds that rightly sparks the film’s central, underlining sense of unyielding apprehension.
Nevertheless, as in any good movie, what truly sets this film apart from merely resembling the average “run of the mill” “no brainer” is the extremely dedicated, and convincing cast; they ultimately portray all of their respective roles with such a lively sense of grounded intensity that even an actor like Jeremy Piven, who was virtually unheard of at the time of the film’s release, shines through as an unstoppable force of palpable realism. The chemistry between all the actors is so strong, and so rich, that just watching the unknown Piven exchange angst-filled rebuttals against Leary ‘s own eccentrically insane brand of dialogue delivery is enough to make your teeth sweeten. The cast, here, is in top from.
Emilio Estevez plays the cool, level-headed, family man leader of the group while Stephen Dorff, another actor who was virtually unknown at the time, plays Estevez’s less then stable, yet equally as cool, grudge-torn slacker younger bother. Rounding out the last two members of the childhood group of 30 something adults, we have Cuba Gooding Jr., Pre-Jerry McGuire fame, acting his guts out as the group’s arrogantly cool lady’s man with a self-proclaimed badass swagger that ultimately melts and gives way to his terrified inner-child once the film’s tension and suspense kicks in. Jeremy Piven, also, colorfully plays the obnoxious, yet likable, “bullshitter” of the gang; his persona, as well, gets even more layered as the film speeds along into danger inducing territory forcing Piven’s character to showdown, “one on one”, against Dennis Leary’s relentlessly deranged sociopath. Here, Leary plays, what I consider to be, his best role to date with such a ferociously intense, and intimidating level, of comic gusto that he ultimately reeks of “badassly” coolness as far as movie villains go. In my mind, Leary has never quite lived up to all the insane promise he initially showed with this character and, unfortunately, I don’t think that this flick is well known enough to ever warrant some sort of twisted re-visiting to the Fallon role so, in that respect, one should really admire the amount of power that Leary creates for, what essentially is, a one dimensional character.
While Judgment Night may not be the movie your mom buys you for Christmas, it certainly is the film you should seek out if you’re in the mood for something that bears the pace of a bullet train on foot. Criminally underrated and ultimately forgotten, this is the movie that reminds you how great a somewhat old fashioned, taught suspense/thriller can be.