The most chilling aspect of the urban thriller “Judgment Night” is how infinitely superior its craft is to its art. This is an exceedingly well directed, cleverly filmed and edited, tension-filled affair. It is also a wholly preposterous, muddled, paranoid’s view of the inner-city nightmare where the slightest misstep is sure to have a fateful result.
“Judgment Night” is a slight, pretentious programmer that doesn’t work for the action crowd, and while concept and cast should open the picture, it has no sustaining B.O. force.
The action pivots around a boys’ night out in which four young men head from the suburbs to a big boxing match in downtown Chicago. Along the route they run into gridlock and take an offramp into a bad neighborhood. It doesn’t take much to guess what happens next.
One character is dead on and observes “nothing about tonight makes much sense.” For starters, Ray (Jeremy Piven) has commandeered a gigantic, top-end RV that we are to believe he fast-talked a dealer into lending him on the prospect of selling several to his supposed company. It exists, in movie fashion, only to be destroyed in the course of the story.
More troubling is the composition of the quartet. Apart from where they live, their age, avocation and attitudes provide no linking bond. Frank (Emilio Estevez) is married, has a child and may or may not be out of work. His brother John (Stephen Dorff) is alienated by something that is never defined, and the presence of Mike (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has no other explanation apart from racial diversity.
Lewis Collick’s script is one long line of falling dominos defined more by gravity than logic.
The search-and-destroy and turn-the-tables-on-the-hunters scenario is pretty standard stock of the genre. The new wrinkle of setting the action in the poor side of town is just the shorthand to quickly raise middle-class anxiety to a fever pitch.
In addition to “Judgment Night,” Universal released the inner-city actioners “Trespass” and “Hard Target” in the past year. This is a device yet to be intelligently exploited.
Amid the rubble, Estevez and Denis Leary, as the chief goon, comport themselves with some dignity and skill. Without falling into caricature, each manages to embody good and evil.
Director Stephen Hopkins once again proves himself a shrewd manipulator of the medium. This is a handsome, cleverly made production with particular strong visuals from cameraman Peter Levy.