USA. The sun shines. Kids play in a wide-open street, bathed in heavenly
Spielbergian light and swathed in slow motion. A breezy pop tune fills the
soundtrack. Frank (Emilio Estévez) vacillates at the front gate of his home, in
the midst of a minor tiff with his wife, Linda (Christine Harnos); he wants a
weekend of fun with his mates, Mike (Cuba Gooding Jr), Ray (Jeremy Piven) and
little brother John (Stephen Dorff). He wins the fight, and is soon zooming off
to the country in a handsomely equipped RV.
a plot that is shaping up as a replay of City
Slickers (1991) suddenly heads elsewhere, as our ordinary heroes take a
wrong turn off the highway and land in the middle of a fearsome ghetto.
Uneasily negotiating an obstacle course that includes African-American teens,
drug addicts, sleek white crooks and the hungry homeless, one of our nominal identification-figures
eventually snaps and hurls abuse at one of the ghetto’s denizens: “Go to hell!”
The reply he receives is cool and pertinent: “You’re already there”.
it’s Michael Keaton daring to visit a masseur at the slummy end of town in My Life (1993),
a gang of teens losing their way across the city in The Warriors (1979), or the schmuck hero of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
taking the wrong turn-off and ending up in a black ghetto, it’s the same basic
premise beloved of modern American film: stray too far from home, and there's
no telling what nightmare you will find ...
is a grim but ceaseless fascination to these paranoid fantasies emanating from
the addled psyche of Middle America. Judgment
Night, like many a canny popular movie, attempts to exploit this fantasy,
while making a show of duly criticising it. Once this motley suburban crew are
on foot in the hellish urban jungle, it is the small-minded racist among them
who is clearly the least likely to survive.
is a diverting (in all senses) action movie, directed with great flair by
Australian expatriate, Stephen Hopkins. He has enjoyed a smooth and substantial
career, swiftly graduating from a striking, low-budget thriller made in
Australia (Dangerous Game, 1988) to a
string of Hollywood assignments including A
Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (1989) – among the best in that franchise – and Predator 2 (1990).
Judgment Night’s sociological
touches – lifestyle jokes, familiar urban landmarks, mini-dramas of race, class
and gender – are well integrated into the suspense and violence. It is as fine
an example as any of what constitutes action cinema: two-dimensional,
stereotyped characters mouthing pithy aphorisms in between violent clinches
that occur at a furious pace. Moreover, it reminds us of Richard Dyer’s astute
analysis and defense of the action genre (“Action!”, Sight and Sound, October 1994, downloadable here). For such movies map
– in however inadvertent or unselfconscious a fashion – a social and bodily
experience of space.
They offer us thrills and elations we might
seldom have, might think it impossible really to have, but they relate such
imaginings of elation to the human co-ordinates of the real world: the
environments we live in, the social categories in which we have our being. In
the process, they propose and legitimate kinds of thrills, and who gets them
and who pays the price. (p. 8)
good action movies – Judgment Night among them – derive their special frisson from the transgression of these often
unstated co-ordinates and categories. The films also enter into an entrancing
generic/intertextual network: this one, for example, enters into dialogue with
Walter Hill’s excellent Trespass (1992), which mixed the
journey-to-a-dangerous-site trope with that of struggle-over-contested-territory
(and booty). Once again: space, place, borders, power – enough to add up to one
(but only one!) definition of cinema.
particular, Denis Leary as Fallon in Judgment
Night is an ingeniously conceived villain. Anyone who rehearses Robert
Hughes’ critique of the “culture of complaint” while he whimsically,
sadistically murders his allies is a notch beyond the usual bad-guy cliché.
© Adrian Martin October / November 1994