"Judgment Night" is as routine as a gallbladder operation, though not nearly as entertaining.
Generic, politically correct and gratingly predictable, it's the story of four suburban guys who get off the expressway at the wrong exit and find themselves in the no-man's land of the inner city. It postulates the suburbanite's archetypal fear of bleak city 'hoods: You are only a bad exit away from a no exit. The last sound you hear is the zipper on the body bag as they pull it shut over your head.
The setup is a contrast between two groups of young men. The four suburban guys -- a racially correct mix of three whites and a black -- are heading downtown (the scene is Chicago) to see a fight. They're phony-tough, prosperous softies, yakkers and braggarts, getting off on the fantasy of watching other men do battle while dreaming about it in the safe little meadows of their own inner brains. Meanwhile, another gang of four is the real thing, in the process of rubbing out a traitor: recklessly brave, relentlessly aggressive, authentic urban scum, hardened by time the joint and a thousand street scams and rumbles. When the 'burb boys bumble into the nasty boys, the chase is on.
That's the movie: ready, set, go, a chase across a nightscape of Chicago so devoid of other human activity that it could be the face of the moon. There's a little of the abstraction in Walter Hill's "The Warriors," a film (among too many) that director Stephen Hopkins has clearly studied.
Yet each character is so thinly imagined and the ensuing violence is so TV-usual, the whole thing never works. Emilio Estevez is the leader of the drip pack and that irritating guy from the Nike ads, Denis Leary, is the head of the rat patrol. But someone forgot to write any characters for either of them. Estevez is a married man with nothing to distinguish him except a storybook phony wife and daughter at home; Leary merely repeats his Nike shtick, that yammering fast-talk patter seething with aggression and contempt while he snorkels air through a cigarette. Some bad guy: He talks so much the people he's hunting always know where he is.
Another movie Hopkins saw was Caroll Reed's great "The Third Man," and I fear he saw it too many times; he must have majored in "Camera Angles of Caroll Reed." A whole central section, with the sets of boys running through an elaborate set of sewers that look like a professional Chutes and Ladders stadium, is stolen from Reed's masterpiece. Too bad Orson Welles wasn't available to give a complex portrait of cold scheming evil to the picture. Instead we're stuck with Leary, incongruous New York accent and all, trying to jabber his way to stardom.
Hopkins invents other stylistic pyrotechnics. Using an extremely deep focus lens (or, possibly, matting together two separate shots), he loves to show an extreme close-up of one over lighted face staring into the camera and, 30 feet or so back, also in perfect focus and lighted for theater, not movies, another face. OK, do it once, for drama, then forget it. But not Hopkins. He must come back to this absurd composition half a dozen times and it gets more and more grating as it goes along.
The screenplay makes half-hearted attempts to give each of the good guys some kind of background and distinct personality, but other than the abrasive Leary, the bad guys are shadowy ciphers. We're not even sure what crime business they're in -- robbery, drugs, extortion, disrespect to the flag. Giving the villains distinctive looks and personalities might have really helped this movie; as it is, they're like extras from a junior college drama department production of "West Side Story."
And finally: someone once made a movie about Chicago called "City That Never Sleeps." This one should be called "The City That Never Wakes Up, No Matter What" as these fights and gun battles rave crazily from neighborhood to neighborhood without
disturbing a soul. I doubt the movie itself will disturb anyone -- it's a snooze, too.
Starring Emilio Estevez and Denis Leary
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Released by Universal
... * 1/2