Judgment Night

(Stephen Hopkins, USA, 1993)


Suburbia, 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.


But 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”.


Whether 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 ...


There 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.


This 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)


All 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.


In 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.

MORE Hopkins: The Ghost and The Darkness, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Lost in Space

© Adrian Martin October / November 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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