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Defending The Indefensible: Judgment Night

Judgment Night

Welcome one and all to the first published edition of Defending the Indefensible, the semi-irregular series of blogs based around the currently stagnant film series, hosted by yours truly, where local film critics, writers, filmmakers, and bloggers defend some of their most beloved, yet critically panned films. While this series in no way means that the screening series has died (there are issues that need to be worked out and addressed, and they will be in the near future), these blogs will focus on a specific kind of cinematic dud: the much derided films that wouldn’t draw any sort of a crowd if I were to book them in a cinema. So without further ado, let’s dive right in to our first subject. It should also go without saying that this series will contain spoilers for the films being covered.

“Hey yo, kids! Remember when I used to be dope?” – De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub, “Fallin’”

The opening line of the song that starts this entry also opens the film we will be looking at, and there are few lines more prescient to start off a film. The opening of director Stephen Hopkins’ 1993 genre picture Judgment Night takes us to a bucolic street in suburban Chicago, shot in slow motion and set to the most gentile song on the film’s more noteworthy soundtrack. There’s leaves blowing in the wind, kids on bikes, picket fences, and Cuba Gooding Jr. crossing the street after exiting his sports car to hit on a random woman that passes his fancy. It’s a stark, but necessary contrast to the nasty urban action film to follow, but what I want to focus on first is that opening line from the film’s soundtrack.

Judgment Night serves as a near perfect example of what I like to refer to as a “reverse cult classic.” At one point in the late 90s and early 2000s, Hopkins’ film was seen as being quite “dope.” The film’s cast – aside from star Emilio Estevez, playing the film’s main protagonist Frank Wyatt – had all gained considerable notoriety after this film languished in development hell for years and after numerous cancelled and several rescheduled release dates after completion.

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Hopkins’ star had even risen as a director following the inexplicable success of the illogical and dreadful box office hit The Ghost and the Darkness, where Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer hunt mythical lions while the latter helps build a railroad through Africa. (That’s actually another great example of a “reverse cult classic,” but not one I’m willing to defend.) He would squander nearly all of that good will by making the cinematic reboot of Lost in Space, before gaining it all back again as one of the primary players in the first (and best) season of television’s 24.

Even the film’s soundtrack – created in party by Happy Walters, who for the longest time was the go to guy for setting up incredible lines ups of bands for use in numerous films – began to see resurgence in popularity. Arguably aside from Anthrax and Public Enemy and Run DMC and Aerosmith collaborating, the Judgment Night soundtrack was a sea change moment in the much derided musical sub-genre known as rap rock. Aside from the film’s opening song, the album (which decisively outperformed the film it came from) featured collaborations from rock and metal bands teaming up with hard edged hip-hop acts. Onyx and Biohazard teamed up for what would become the film’s title track. Sonic Youth paired up with Cypress Hill, who would also join up with Pearl Jam for a bonus album track not featured in the film. There was Living Colour and Run DMC together, House of Pain and Helmet, and Faith No More and the Boo-Ya Tribe. The collaborations were so left field and unheard of that they made the now quaint pairing of Ice-T and Slayer seem uninspired by comparison.

Around 2005, things changed drastically for this previous box office dud’s pedigree. It went from being an unqualified gem in the eyes of many to becoming one of the whackest films of its era, which, to be honest, was how it was generally received by film critics upon release. Hopkins’ career faltered. Stars Emilio Estevez and Stephen Dorff really didn’t rise or fall much since the mid-90s. Cuba Gooding Jr. would win an Oscar for Jerry Maguire and would then become synonymous with squandered potential. Jeremy Piven and Denis Leary would go on to successful TV careers with Entourage and Rescue Me, respectively, but neither would be as lauded for any of their past cinematic accomplishments. Also, most of North America realized that rap rock sucked something awful. Its cult status had almost been revoked entirely and the film became a curious footnote in the careers of the participants.

Putting the soundtrack aside (which truly does run the gamut from novel to awful), it’s a real shame that Judgment Night was unable to hold onto its group of core defenders. It’s Hopkins most assured film as a director despite some occasional over the top touches that were typical of 90s feature films made by music video and commercial directors. The film begins as a pretty standard, entertaining, and oddly cast urban potboiler, but the first half shines thanks to a great performance from Leary as the film’s main heavy that contributes to an interesting discussion about the economics of crime. The second half of the film really cooks thanks to an interesting push and pull between Estevez and Leary that offers up an interesting look at nature vs. nurture, but most likely that’s through accident and coincidence rather than through active planning on the part of the filmmakers.

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The setup for the film doesn’t require much explanation. Family man Frank (Estevez) goes out on the town for his first night away from home since the birth of his newborn. The plan is to go out with his friends to see a boxing match in the big city. Motormouth Ray (Piven, naturally) has conned a car salesman into giving him an enormous RV for the trip to keep his buddies entertained. Rounding out their band of merry men are the former jock Mike (Gooding Jr.) and Frank’s irresponsible brother John (Dorff), both of whom remember when Frank wasn’t so responsible with his life and wish he hadn’t turned into such a drag.

Already half in the bag thanks to the on-board mini-bar and stymied by a huge traffic jam, Ray takes a detour off the highway and deep into the inner city to find a shortcut so they don’t miss the main event. After getting incredibly lost, the four friends witness a drug-related murder perpetrated by a gangster named Fallon (Leary). Knowing that the white boys in the RV attempted to help the victim and that they saw everything, Fallon and his gang proceed to chase the men all over the cold, uncaring projects to kill them off.

For the film’s distributor, Universal, this was their second film in a matter of years about “white boys in the ghetto” to come from a script that had been kicked around for quite some time. In Christmas of 1991, they released the Robert Zemeckis scripted and Walter Hill directed Trespass, a reworking of Treasure of the Sierra Madre where two firefighters (William Sadler and Bill Paxton) who witness a gangland execution at the hands of two gangbangers (Ice-T and Ice Cube) while searching for hidden gold in an abandoned East St. Louis warehouse. The script for that one was actually written and sold to Universal before Zemeckis hit it big with Back to the Future, and only produced when they were about to lose the option on it.

Similarly, Judgment Night had kicked around Hollywood as one of the (allegedly) best unproduced scripts of the time. Lewis Collick’s screenplays for both this and 1992’s Kurt Russell/Ray Liotta home invasion thriller Unlawful Entry were purchased by a production company named Largo in 1987. Judgment Night was optioned by Universal almost immediately, while Unlawful Entry languished for some time. The latter was eventually picked up by 20th Century Fox and turned into a modestly profitable hit that out performed expectations.

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Universal’s option on Judgment Night was close to expiring and Fox was starting to express interest. Thinking they had something that could be made into a tent pole release on their hands, Universal frantically began pre-production on the film with Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Predator 2 director Hopkins at the helm. The biggest obstacle for the film actually came in the casting for the lead role of Frank because no A-list actors expressed interest in the film or were available. Everyone from Tom Cruise to Christian Slater was approached for the film, but in a panic the studio settled on Estevez and threw him a career high paycheque just to ensure the film got made before they lost the rights to the story.

While the script holds more than its share of welcome surprises, it isn’t hard to see why so many actors passed on the role of Frank Wyatt. For the first hour of the film, he’s easily the least interesting character in the film, and even once the chase starts, the audience gravitates more towards the fate of the other friends and the villains rather than the fate of Frank. It’s undeniably problematic since we all know from the opening scene that Frank is the focus and that he’ll ultimately have to be the one to save the day. But since Frank starts off so bland he might as well be see through, let’s focus on the first half of the film by going through the rest of the cast.

Before the appearance of Fallon (Denis Leary), Piven plays the film’s main antagonist. Ray’s a hustler in every sense and almost always on edge because he’s afraid of being seen as the fraud he truly is. Ray drinks and drives, thinks he knows the answer to everything, and was even dumb enough to bring a loaded Glock 9mm on their little day trip. When shit goes down, he insists his cell phone has no signal, but it’s all a lie because he’s more worried about the open liquor bottles and the insurance on the crashed RV to care about anyone other than himself. He’s constantly mistrusting John, despite the fact that Frank’s brother is only half the hothead he is. It’s quite possibly the earliest example of what would become Piven’s general style of acting. You never see him doing lines of cocaine, but one gets the impression that Ray did a lot of them before he showed up.

Ray’s method of doing business gets put into contrast with that of Fallon for the first half of the film, and it’s a wise decision on the part of the filmmakers. Each band of brothers, has a fast talking, hard headed slickster front and centre. But while Fallon remains icy calm and maintains control over his posse (including character actor Peter Greene and House of Pain’s Everlast as two prominent henchmen), Ray rules with fear, causing his friends to get into more and more trouble.

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After a sequence that involves the suburbanites hiding from Fallon’s gang in abandoned rail cars populated by homeless people looking for bribes to keep their mouths shut, the action shifts to a tenement building and two scenes that rhyme quite nicely together to show the influence of Ray and Fallon on their respective groups.

While Frank and Mike try desperately to find a tenant in the projects willing to let strangers in to use their phone to call the police, Fallon runs afoul of a gang of young thugs protecting their block from outside influence. Fallon’s all white crew might have a lot of firepower and financial pull, but they’re still largely strangers in this world. In a scene that makes perfect economic sense and speaks to the nagging question some audience members might have about just why a white, well dressed gang would be such a major inner city threat, Fallon and his crew are made out to be outsiders in this land as well. The local gang, which bears favourable comparison to the crew at the heart of Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, demands answers. Fallon showcases his understanding of the criminal code and his own style of negotiation, never talking down to the teens, but clearly coming across as the type of criminal who also refuses to live in the city because he doesn’t want to shit where he eats. Even after explaining the situation and his need to save face to the crew, they still deny him access to any information until the inevitable exchange of money.

Inside the housing project, Frank has talked a single mother into letting them use their phone to call the police and to stay inside until the police arrive. After only fifteen minutes in the apartment, Ray’s contempt for the lower class begins to manifest itself in ugly ways. He berates the apartment owners for the police refusing to show up in a timely manner to a crime ridden neighbourhood long since ignored by law enforcement. At the point when Fallon and his crew access the building and begin going door to door looking for the witnesses, the owners ask Frank and his friends to leave. At this point, Ray pulls his aforementioned gun from his pants and points it at his friends and the people who once agreed to help. Ray refuses to run, insisting the police are on their way.

Fallon understands the distinction between the classes, understanding that he has to give a little to ultimately get what he wants. With Ray there is no give, only take. Fallon undeniably stands as a successful gangster, making him affably upper middle class in terms of income at the very least. With Ray, success an illusion since it becomes inherently obvious that even more so than Fallon, Ray has bullied his way into everything he’s been handed in life. Through their performances, it’s interesting to think about which character actually holds more honour: the man who shot someone point blank in the head for stealing from him or the coward who did nothing and now lets his mates suffer as a result of his own selfishness. It’s not exactly a new or refreshing concept, but Hopkins and Colick handle it extremely well here.

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Following an expertly executed rooftop escape sequence, the stage is set for an actual battle of wits between Fallon and Ray that will serve as the necessary catalyst for Frank’s ultimate change. Ray attempts to negotiate a monetary settlement to let his friends go, while Frank, Mike, and John lie low on the roof of an adjacent building. Fallon clearly has no desire to negotiate with Ray despite being offered a substantial amount of money, but he plays along with Ray before explaining the difference between them and eventually throwing him off the roof of the building, making him the only member of the suburban crew to die.

Ray’s death might be completely expected, but because Piven arguably plays the most interesting character next to Fallon the shock value remains undiminished. The first hour of the film systematically shows Ray’s mental breakdown in great detail, relegating even the film’s main character to simply being background noise. Gooding Jr. and Dorff are fine in their roles as two cocky, tough guys growing increasingly terrified, but their character arcs are simple and unchanging for nearly the entire film. Leary, for as great as he is in his best cinematic performance, still only gets to show fissures in his ice cold demeanour towards the very end. Estevez’s character hasn’t even had an arc by this point, and won’t get much of one. But Piven was handed the most manic role in the film, and as he departs the story, so does a lot of energy, meaning Hopkins and Colick have to work even harder to sustain the audience’s interest.

Before getting back to Estevez, now would be a good time to address the visual style of Hopkins. His two previous feature films both boasted gritty gothic influences regardless of how the final product ultimately turned out in terms of quality. For what it’s worth the generally little liked Nightmare 5, arguably had some of the most memorable set pieces in the franchise with knowing nods to the works of Munch, Klimt, Escher, Lovecraft, and even Stan Lee. It was a dazzling work of misguided and misunderstood pop art that Hopkins revisits somewhat here in his grimy recreations of city streets as trash strewn nightmares. The wind blows refuse about like tumbleweeds in a western, and while it’s a bit much at times (especially early on), it gives a whole new meaning to the feeling of an “urban nightmare.”

Aside from some unnecessary slow motion, close-ups, and rack focus shots, Hopkins and his frequent cinematographer Peter Levy have crafted a very handsome film. While Hopkins never fully rids himself of his music video tendencies in later films, he has a kinetic eye for action and suspense that never resorts to the kind of fast editing many of his MTV reared peers often use to mask their shortcomings. Through the use of intricate steadicam and crane shots, Hopkins builds tension here without ever resorting to shortcuts. There’s constant motion, but there’s actual meaning and depth to the visuals instead of simply waving sequences in front of the audience’s face and daring them to make sense of it all.

Hopkins seems back in Predator 2 mode for the final two extended set pieces that lead to the end of the film: a cat and mouse sequence in sewer tunnels where Frank finally has to step up and become the leader his friends once knew and a final showdown against Fallon in a grimy inner city discount mall. These scenes are entertaining thanks to Hopkins, but really perfunctory in terms of storytelling. They only serve to prove that Mike and John really aren’t as hard as they say they are, and to kill off members of Fallon’s crew one at a time. The rise of Frank from a milquetoast to a man pushed to far after Fallon threatens to harm his family is certainly crowd pleasing in the sense that viewers have probably been waiting for Estevez to actually do something, but the real critical hook here comes from the casting of Estevez in the first place.

I alluded to the casting difficulties of the production earlier, but I truly don’t think the film would work with someone other than Estevez in the role of Frank. While Estevez is generally a fine screen presence, I don’t even say that based on his performance. I say it based on his oddly uncanny resemblance to Denis Leary in this film.

Estevez has a sort of boyish good looks to him that Leary would have if it weren’t for his overbite that makes him a tad more menacing to look at. In this film, they also have basically the same haircut, making one wonder why Dorff isn’t playing the heavy and why Leary isn’t playing the brotherly role. The answer almost unwittingly seems to tie into the economic subtext of the film since Frank and Fallon are almost perfect mirror images of each other.

It could be a happy accident made through almost desperate casting and I might even be reading too much into this, but based on looks and scripting alone, Frank could’ve very well turned out to be a person like Fallon. Mike and John are always goading Frank that he had gone soft and sold out for family life and the American dream. The script always alludes to Frank as being someone who at one point would’ve beat someone’s ass at a moment’s notice. Even Frank’s wardrobe feels like a faked, forced look for a blue collar working man, when clearly he lives in the ultimate white collar neighbourhood.

Fallon on the other hand presents himself as a well dressed, stylish, and put together model of success. He speaks about his being a self-made man and his rise to power with genuine humility that masks his ruthless tendencies. Clearly, Fallon comes from a darker place than Frank, but his money has to come from somewhere. Frank seemingly shirks his successful nature, while everyone around him, including Fallon, seems to embrace it.

The notion of the family man suddenly snapping because the villain runs his mouth too much isn’t as compelling as the economic subtext. Frank’s evening long fight for survival becomes something wholly primal when one realizes that he’s been essentially outrunning his past in the form of this doppelganger. Going back to the rooftop sequence between Fallon and Ray, one can’t help but get the sense that Fallon states everything Frank always wanted to say to Ray at his angriest. Once the stage is set for the final fight between the leads, it’s only natural that the only way to defeat Fallon would be to stoop to his level. By the end, Frank makes peace with his past by doing the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time to protect his wounded friend and brother. It also demonstrates the one thing ultimately separating him from Fallon since it’s highly unlikely Leary’s character has any degree of friendly loyalty left to anyone.

By the end of its run, Judgement Night made only $12 million back on a $30 million budget. It probably didn’t help that Universal ultimately delayed the release of the film across a full year and four different release dates (September 1992, then April ’93, then May, and finally October). The actual release was marred by generally negative reviews that centred on the cookie cutter nature of the characters being the biggest detraction. It deserves better than what it got and it’s definitely worth reconsideration by people looking for a cracking good genre film. There’s more than enough here to warrant a rental of it or a watch on television. But like I said at the start, I doubt I’d ever get enough people into a theatre to watch it.

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