the rap, metal and mayhem behind archived ’90’s cult-thriller ‘judgment night’

The first 64 minutes of Judgment Night (1993) are excellent in terms of plot and character development. The remaining one-third of the film falls flat, sprawled out with predictability. Renowned producer/director Stephen Hopkins (Blown Away, The Ghost and the Darkness) is at the helm of this foot chase through the Chicago night between four suburban friends from Evanston, Illinois and four Irish-American gangsters deeply involved in the crime-infested underworld of Chicago. There’s two brothers portrayed by Emilio Estevez and Stephen Dorff – Francis and John. Then there’s Razor Ray and Mike – Frank’s friends played by Jeremy Piven and Cuba Gooding Jr. In the context of friendships and brotherhood, the crew of four have chemistry; there’s constantly an impulse of emotion occurring with each character; they have each other’s backs and even cap on each other with gags. These plausible relationships make the first two acts of this film intriguing, supplemented by the fierce and ruthless Denis Leary and Peter Greene who portray underbelly gangsters, Fallon and Sykes – clean-cut Irish-American gangsters dressed to kill in black leather jackets and pea-coats.

Judgment Night (1993) ©Universal

The dark alleys and byways of abandoned ghost towns within Chicago are shot in an apocalyptic way. After Razor Ray conned a car dealer to let him test drive an RV for the evening, the crew get stuck amid stop & go, highway traffic, while commuting from Evanston to Chicago to catch a big pay-per-view boxing match, live at an arena. The RV is decked-out with a Nintendo Classic, built in TV broadcasting preliminary bouts from the fight card; a mini-bar, megaphone and a Beretta 9mm. After an incident of road rage with a hot-head driving a pick-up truck, over right-of-way in changing lanes, screenwriter Lewis Colick lets audiences know who has the biggest balls on the crew – Cuba Gooding Jr.; not only is he an ex-football player, he manages to deescalate the conflict with wrestling skills.

JUDGMENT NIGHT, Jeremy Piven, Emilio Estevez, Stephen Dorff, Cuba Gooding Jr., 1993. ©Universal

There’s sibling rivalry that serves as a thematic element between the character development of the brothers. Estevez plays a false father-figure role for his younger brother John (Dorff) and overcomes this character arc. Razor Ray’s Jeremy Piven seems to equate John’s male testosterone madness equivalent to the behaviors of a 3 year-old – he might be right. It’s worthy of note, that Frank has a wife and newborn child back home in the suburbs of Evanston; the fact that Fallon (Denis Leary) gets a hold of Frank’s ID and threatens his wife would have opened a new road for the third act. As opposed to a mere foot-chase and climactic showdown, it may have been intriguing to see Fallon get Frank’s family involved, bringing the story full-circle – back to the suburbs of Evanston where Frank rules his domain.

Cuba Gooding Jr, Stephen Dorff and Emilio Estevez chase down a bus in a scene from the film ‘Judgment Night’, 1993. USA. Written by Lewis Colick | Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

Both the soundtrack and original score of this film are at a “Hall of Fame” level. Alan Silvestri’s musical score provides serious tension that enhances the significance of dialogue and supplements the circumstances at stake. His sound elevates the film to a different pedigree. Especially since audiences are triggered of the Back to the Future Trilogy (’85, ’89, ’90) when they hear his music. Alan Silvestri orchestrated and conducted the score for Judgment Night with similar undertones to BTTF. Moreover, the musical soundtrack contains early ’90s Hip-Hop gems intermixed with Heavy Metal tracks that accessorize the street credibility of this urban cult-thriller. The cinematography contains a gothic style with sharp arches in building architecture and large windows creating a dark underworld. Ultimately, it’s the rap/rock soundtrack intermixed with a grade-A musical score that adds weight to its status as a cult-film. What other film is there that contains a soundtrack with De La Soul, Pearl Jam, Run D.M.C., Ice T, Biohazard, House of Pain, Slayer and Cypress Hill? And intermixed with originally orchestrated music by the great Alan Silvestri? Stephen Hopkins directed the hell out of this film. No wonder why Judgment Night is a treasured cult-thriller; it contains ingredients that resonate with specific audiences decades after its release.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven | Judgment Night (1993) | ©Universal

The pre-Entourage Jeremy Piven displays his acting prowess throughout the film and manages to steal the show alongside Denis Leary’s “Fallon” – a cruel villain. Fallon has a rule: no witnesses. This causes suburban friends to run from ruthless Irish gangsters hellbent on getting rid of them. If there was a way to figure out how to make the third act more interesting, this could have been one hell of a film. Suffice it to say, the first 64 minutes are intriguing enough to make it an enthralling thriller. The film strides into a dominion similar to the way of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) did. But one theme Judgment Night avoids is becoming a commentary on race. Lewis Colick’s script is written this way; perhaps thematic elements of race and ethnic gang activity in urban subcultures of Chicago, in conjunction with a different climax and alternate ending, would have served as the perfect cap on what are an intriguing first and second act of the script.

©Universal

Judgment Night grossed $12,527,677 on a $21 million budget. It is available on Blu-ray as a part of Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection.

Judgment Night Soundtrack: Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul – Fallin’

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