Which man are you? Are you the new family man just looking for a night out with the fellas? Are you the irresponsible brother with a short fuse and a Camaro in need of a serious paint job? Are you the best friend who might be too cocky for his own good?
Are you the sniveling, selfish weasel who has to impress with cash and goods to keep your friends around, but folds under the slightest bit of pressure? Let’s hope not.
Stephen Hopkins’ Judgment Night, one of the most underrated thrillers of the nineties, is a brutal and propulsive adventure through the bowels of a Chicago hellscape where the façade of suburban safety is stripped from our quartet of protagonists, piece by piece, until all they have left is who, and what, they really are. It’s a litmus test for what it means to be a man, and what being a man means when faced with almost certain death. When your world is blown up in a fiery explosion, in a precarious part of town, and you’re left with only wits and stamina, which kind of man are you going to be?
Our central hero is Frank, played by Emilio Estevez. Frank is a new father, and he looks appropriately exhausted after three months at home with his wife and their new daughter. He wants a night out with his friends, “just a couple of guys going to a boxing match,” though his wife, Linda, gives him plenty of shit for suggesting he needs a break more than her. Nevertheless, she acquiesces, despite the fact she doesn’t care for Frank’s juvenile, childless, unmarried buddies.
Frank’s closest friend is Mike, a handsome, cocksure bachelor played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. Mike never outgrew his college days, and Linda knows it. Jeremy Piven is Ray, the fast-talking charlatan of the group who managed to coerce an RV dealer into letting him take one of their shiny new models off the lot for a night out on the town. Rounding out the quartet of normal dudes is John, played by Stephen Dorff; John is Frank’s younger brother, who seems to barely have a grip on this whole “adulthood” phenomenon. John is an irresponsible hothead, not to mention a last second replacement for a friend who couldn’t make it.
Of course, things do not go as planned for the guys on their way to the boxing match in downtown Chicago. They take an ill-advised detour into the slums and run afoul of Fallon (Denis Leary, never better), a murderous small-time gangster with a claim to the streets and a chip on his shoulder. Anyone who’s seen the film knows the outcome of our four innocents as they try and make it across a deliberately empty city that resembles a waking nightmare. Throughout this hellacious night, the superficiality of common male companionship is stripped away, and what springs up in the wake of this deconstruction is where Judgment Night becomes more than just another bargain basement thriller.
When Frank and his pals hit the road and leave the safe confines of suburbia behind, they may be different men underneath, but they all give off the same sense of bloviating badassery, however false it may be. They drink Budweiser, they make jokes at each other’s expense, they like sports. Before long, however, every common bond they share is gone, and the only commonality they now share is surviving the night. Each man handles the situation differently, with varying degrees of fear and confidence, and it lays out a set of templates with which the men in the audience could identify.
Every man who watches Judgment Night probably sees themselves as one of three. They may identify with Frank in this situation, a family man who remains calm and pragmatic, but who has plenty of fight in him when pushed to the breaking point. Some might try and say they would be like Mike, tough and confident all the way through; perhaps even a little too confident, but a strong Alpha nonetheless. Others would identify with John, the younger brother with a short fuse who’s ready to fight, because it’s the one thing he’s good at.
Nobody would ever willingly identify with Ray, not without a hint of irony. Once the common tropes of friendship are stolen from these four men, it’s Ray who shrivels. He is a coward, he is selfish, and he thinks he can money whip Fallon into letting them go free. Of course, he pays for this attempted bribery with his life – the only casualty of the group – and the film tells us he probably deserved it. He was always the last one over the fence and the first one to complain; the way he acts in the face of impending doom is repulsive, so he has to be thrown off the roof to get him out of the way.
A man would never say he would act the way Ray does in the film, but the truth is, most of us have a little Ray in us. Even though we’re certain we would fight to save our family, or that we would walk across that makeshift wooden bridge between the rooftops of project apartments, or we would grab a heavy iron pipe and hold our ground, odds are we would at least consider talking to the villains nipping at our heels because, well, it’s just easier than all this physical maneuvering. Survival instincts aren’t the same from person to person.
Some of us may even have a little of Fallon in our bones. Fallon is single-minded in his ultimate goal to eliminate four murder witnesses, but Denis Leary gives the character more, whether it’s in the classic Leary-style rant about class he gives to Ray on the rooftop, or the way he looks the picture of Frank’s family he finds in Frank’s wallet. It’s a mix of anger, contempt, and jealousy. Fallon will never have that sort of domestic life, and while he may scoff at the simplistic safety of Frank’s world, the softness of their idyllic existence, Leary makes it clear that, under an outward disgust that often manifests itself in psychotic, violent ways, he envies the security of suburbia. It’s the sort of envy we all harbor somewhere in us; hopefully, it would never boil to the surface this way.
Which man are you?