Emilio Estevez double feature reminds you he is awesome
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
Dollar For The Dead (1998)
I’d never heard of this made-for-TV western before. That’s probably because I generally make it a point to ignore made-for-TV films. Dollar For The Dead makes me want to re-think that policy as it’s about as much fun as westerns ever get. A clear homage to the works of Sergio Leone, right down to the nameless hero, squinty-eyed standoffs, and reverent score, the film this is most akin to, however, is Sam Raimi’s The Quick And The Dead. Applying modern day camera techniques and an ensemble cast to die for, Dollar For The Dead attempts to squeeze as much fun as possible out of the gritty gunslinger subgenre, just as Raimi’s film did. The lean 93 minute runtime allows for perfectly paced and staged operatic gun fights that pay more homage to John Woo (sans the bloodshed) than Leone. And the backstabbing, revenge, and eternal quest for gold all gel perfectly thanks to writer/director Gene Quintano’s clear familiarity and love for the genre in which he is working.
Quintano’s name is not one I was familiar with, but looking over his credits tells me I need to reset my reverence level. Responsible for writing comedy and action/adventure titles such as Comin’ At Ya, multiple Police Academy sequels, a couple of Cannon Quatermain films, and even JCVD’s Sudden Death, this is a man who obviously knows how to craft fun for the big and small screen alike!
And despite the limits of the 4:3 aspect ratio of this made-for-tv title, Dollar For The Dead does have a very cinematic quality to it. Action scenes here are genuinely breathtaking and stylish, featuring slow motion and acrobatics with more clear vision and planning put into them than most Hollywood shoot-em-ups. Quintano has done far less directing than writing, but he’s definitely got a knack for honoring those who came before him with work that honors through emulation.
Adding to the strong pacing and set pieces are the amazing talent assembled in front of the camera. Estevez and William Forsythe make a surprisingly earnest duo of “heroes,” and character actor stalwarts like Ed Lauter, Jonathan Banks, Joaquim De Almeida, and even Howie Long make for a smorgasbord of recognizable talent in an unjustly unknown film.
Any fans of John Woo, Sergio Leone, or Sam Raimi may want to seriously consider giving Dollar For The Dead a spin.
JUDGMENT NIGHT (1993)
If you’re my age or roughly of my generation, there are probably a few things you remember about Judgment Night. And those few things are tracks off of the killer album that famously paired metal groups with rap groups to craft original music that blew our collective minds at the time. From what you can hear in the film proper, those distinctive tracks do still stand out and steal the show right out from under the weird little movie itself. Judgment Night isn’t so much the 90s classic you want it to be; but rather a nondescript footnote with killer tunes guiding you through.
A film whose only female characters are lead Emilio Estevez’ wife and baby daughter, Judgment Night is exclusively about a relatively unlikeable group of bros who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time being hunted by some murderous gangsters who, in the scheme of things, feel like people you’d rather hang out with than our heroes. Maybe that’s because the lead villain is Denis Leary’s Fallon, and Denis Leary is often among the best parts of any movie he’s in. (See: The Amazing Spider-Man). But it’s also because, despite being filled with actors we know and occasionally love, Judgment Night’s heroes are what one might call “unsympathetic”. Emilio Estevez’ Frank is just looking for a fun night out with his friends at the boxing match, something he hasn’t done for three months since the birth of his baby girl. We know this because his wife is portrayed as a nag, and the wife and daughter go from serving as a ball and chain from which to be freed to the symbol upon which Frank will grow up and find the strength he needs to fight back against his assailants. Frank’s little brother John is played by Stephen Dorff as a young punk who constantly bickers with his older brother. Then you’ve got Cuba Gooding, Jr. as college buddy Mike, the lothario of the group who constantly reminds Frank about the balls he used to have in college and how neutered he’s become thanks to that drag of a wife and daughter. Lastly we’ve got the slick, slimeball-ish Ray as portrayed by Jeremy Piven. As the shit hits the fan and our group become increasingly screwed, perhaps Piven is supposed to be the realistic one who makes self-serving decisions. But rather than coming off as a nuanced portrayal of what some will do when faced with their lives, he ultimately just comes off as more craven than our resident murderers.
Judgment Night also does a weird job of completely avoiding any exploration of race or class in this thriller that could be almost entirely about those things. The basic premise of a bunch of fairly well-off bros on their way to a big fight night in a rented luxury RV who get off at the wrong part of town, witness something they shouldn’t have seen, and end up hunted by street criminals, screams for some kind of relevant social commentary. But the most you’ll get is Frank realizing his ole wife and daughter aren’t so bad after all in the face of violent death. And maybe some of his friends realize the time really has come to grow up and become men?
I’d be a lot more forgiving of Judgment Night if it really crackled with excitement. But it really doesn’t. The most fun you’ll have with the film is the time capsule element of seeing all these awesome actors at a certain period of their careers, hearing a few of those killer tracks, and exploring director Stephen Hopkins’ wild career (he of Predator 2, Nightmare On Elm Street 5, and the Lost In Space remake fame). It’s a fun enough film to revisit, but not quite a gem ripe for re-discovery.
And I’m Out.
Dollar For The Dead and Judgment Night are both available on DVD from The Warner Archive.