Judgment Night (1993)

I randomly caught this film from about the middle about, oh, I don’t know 12-14 years ago when it first hit cable. I meant to see it from the beginning ever since. I don’t really know why–usually I am struck by the urge in such situations when someone says something that alludes to an interesting or unexpected beginning. Perhaps I just wanted to know how these characters had gotten themselves into this mess.

Basically, this is the story of four friends–Francis “Frank” Wyatt (Emilio Estevez), Mike Petersen (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Ray Cochran (Jeremy Piven) and Frank’s brother John (Stephen Dorff)–who are heading to a fight in Chicago in an RV that Ray has finagled out of a dealer to “test drive” for his nonexistent company. Frank’s wife is suspicious of their actual intentions and reluctant to let her husband leave the home with his immature friends while she stays home with their newborn daughter. Frank argues his way into it and off they go, a more ridiculous RV yet to be seen carrying them into town until expressway traffic stalls them dead pm the way. A neighboring vehicle almost inspires a fight with hotheaded John, but Frank holds him back and the rather badassed Mike defuses the temper of the man they are arguing with. As a result. Ray decides they should take a “shortcut” around the traffic and wanders into the projects of Chicago. A near miss with a pedestrian who turns out to be shot leads them into conflict with Fallon (Denis Leary), a local druglord, who abhors thieves, liars–and witnesses. The rest is a fastpaced chase for survival on the part of the friends and “clean up” for Fallon and his gang.

I know what most intrigued me about the film (I know I recognized Emilio at the time, but I’m not sure about the rest) was the presence of a villainous Denis Leary. Leary was still known as a comedian at that time, which I’ve since heard him say was his method of “lateral entry” into the acting business,* and this was one of his earlier–if not his earliest–serious role. Well, debatabely–Fallon is as smartassed as Leary himself, but is no less threatening for this fact. Still, he’s a menacing, homicidal and vaguely psychopathic presence, which is, zingers or no, a far cry from the comedic role he was known for otherwise. Frank is the rather subdued, adult and mature of the gang–intentionally–and Emilio’s performance is lowkey as a result. Occasionally even a little iffy, but nothing distracting. Mike is, well, this is before Cuba flushed his career and everyone’s opinion of him down the toilet. He has that wild-eyed energy and bravery masking cowardice down pat, and I recognized that slack-jawed far-off look from a key moment in his later performance in What Dreams May Come–which is not to say he seems mired in the same character, but rather that he knows the business of that, and he knows that’s how he can play that particular role. It works, and that’s what matters. His arrogance and actual bravery earlier in the movie are of the kind that one finds endearing in movies (though likely irritating in reality)–at least so long as he is a “good guy,” which he is here. Dorff is given the least to work with as “the younger brother” but does quite well anyway. Finally, we have Piven as Ray, who is only now getting his due as a fast-talking sleaze sort who can still be charming. He’s early on that character kick here, as the negotiator of the bunch, the one who talks big but obviously has little to back it up and collapses when actual threats begin to appear, constantly feeling he can’t keep up and reacting wildly when backed into a corner.

I know exactly where I came into this movie at least a decade ago, and that’s during Ray’s scene of negotiation with Fallon and his gang. Director Stephen Hopkins puts together a great popcorn action flick (I’m not a fan of that term, as I hate to use terms that imply artistic inferiority when they are not intended to relate to “artistic” films in the first place, but it works and most people would know what I mean by it) and that scene is unbelievably tense even now. The only real dents in the film are a rather intrusive score (Alan Silvestri?! What?! How did he do this silliness?!)–when the friends first find themselves being chased, the music is ridiculously clichéd and incongruous in terms of energy, feeling completely out of place where it appears, and a few horn bleats for shock stings at moments of theoretical surprise are also somewhat annoying. And, of course, there’s a certain air of familiarity in almost any action film that is tough to overcome, and a good star is necessary. Emilio’s passable performance drains some energy, though Cuba, Piven and Leary tend to do their best to bring it back up.

All said, though, it’s a nicely suspenseful movie, one that doesn’t really take any ridiculous mis-steps–usually the kiss of death for an action movie–or suffer poor editing. It’s nothing I’d immediately throw out to people, but it’s a good choice if you want an entertaining story of uptown folk caught where they are not prepared to be and fighting for their lives.

*Perhaps explaining his uncomfortable tendency to steal Bill Hicks gags. It’s debated, but that’s really a joke. Leary is dodgy about discussing it, pretends it didn’t happen–but that just makes him seem even more guilty, if you ask me. Mind you, I remain a fan of Leary–but more for his acting, which is sort of okay with me if he insists the comedy was to get him into that. But I digress. Severely. Nevermind.

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