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We Own the Night (2007)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 12 October 2007

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Film Rating:
2.5
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Instead of opening titles, “We Own the Night” begins with photos of what look like real New York cops, seen to great bluesy music (a style we never hear again), concluding with a shot of a shoulder patch with those words as a slogan.

There are movies about cops and their families, and movies about gangsters and their families; they often tell similar stories. Such is the case with “We Own the Night,” a “Godfather”-like tale this time centered on cops rather than crooks. Joaquin Phoenix, with his smoldering eyes, is fine in the central role, bringing more to it than I suspect was in the script by director James Gray. On the other hand, Mark Wahlberg, as his brother, never really rises above his routine, predictable role. However, he comes to life in the few scenes in which they confront one another.

“We Own the Night” is eager to rouse audience sympathy; the last shot is shamelessly melodramatic and doesn’t come close to ringing true. The plot is more like that of a novel than a movie—it’s a series of linked sequences without much of an overall shape, and doesn’t build to an emotional climax. There are several small climaxes scattered through the movie, so that it keeps stopping and starting again and again. This induces impatience in the viewer. Admittedly, there was some applause at the end of the press screening—while others beat it out the exit as fast as possible.

Set, for no discernible reason, in 1988, “We Own the Night” tells about Bobby Green (Phoenix), a happy guy in his 20s who manages El Caribe, a fabulously successful night club. He has a sexy Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes)—the movie opens with a sexy scene that’s impressively gratuitous—a good pal (Danny Hoch) as his main assistant, and a close relationship with the elderly Russian gentleman (Moni Moshonov) who owns the place. The old man’s nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) is a constant presence at the club, friendly to Bobby, but a well-known and major drug dealer. Bobby shrugs off that side of his life, even though he does an occasional line of cocaine himself, and sometimes smokes dope with Amada.

This is despite his family. We soon learn that he’s ceased using the family name, Grusinsky, in favor of his late mother’s more All-American name of Green. He and Amada attend a party celebrating his police captain brother Joe (Wahlberg), which is also attended by their assistant NYPD chief father Burt (Robert Duvall). Gray amusingly contrasts the loud, active night club scene with the sedate, potluck-dinner police celebration held at a local church—but this is one of the few scenes that sets up this kind of contrast.

We never learn why Bobby didn’t become a cop like Joe and his father, though we do see there’s some bad feelings between him and Joe, and that Burt is disappointed with Bobby’s choice to walk on the narrow edge between law and crime. When it’s suggested he help them get the goods on Vadim, Bobby refuses—then is furious when Joe leads a police raid on El Caribe. Bobby himself is arrested; when he’s released later, he and Joe get into a quick fistfight.

But that night, as Joe arrives home, a sudden figure in hood appears on his street and guns Joe down. A shocked Bobby visits his wounded brother in the hospital in one of the movie’s best scenes; the bid for audience sympathy is more subtle, set to music that sounds like faraway bells, and it works just as intended. There’s a great shot of Bobby’s hand tentatively touching the hand of his unconscious brother.

He knows Vadim was behind this attempted murder, so he makes an offer to his father and his two main officers (a welcome Tony Musante and an excellent Antoni Carone) to pretend to agree to Vadim’s offer to include him in his dope deals. This does not work out well.

The story of “We Own the Night” is centered on Bobby’s switch from a carefree, exiting life of running a club—the old Russian has just offered to set him up in another one—to the more contained, constrained life of a cop. But he does this not out of any conviction that the criminal life is wrong, but out of a sense of vengeance. This isn’t something you can base a life on, but the movie dodges that problem—but not deftly.

However, Phoenix’s performance goes a long way toward making these changes clear and believable; at the beginning, his dark eyes dance with excitement, but as the events pile up, they grow haunted and troubled. He’s a remarkably expressive actor, and while the role is nothing special, his performance is.

Mark Wahlberg was given a more thankless role; we know virtually nothing about Joe Grusinsky, other than that he’s a cop, is annoyed with his brother and worships his father. The character is without background or context; he’s just Bobby’s brother, the cop. He’s not particularly sympathetic, he’s not amusing, he’s without any trace of personality color, and Wahlberg can’t seem to inject much.

Robert Duvall’s role is very much like the other cops he’s occasionally played down through the years. Here, he’s a little older, but that’s about the only distinction Burt Grusinsky has. There’s never a scene that suggests very clearly why—or even whether—he favors Joe over Bobby, other than that Bobby disappointed him by becoming a near-crook rather than a cop. Duvall isn’t given many opportunities to extend the role.

The rest of the cast is fine, especially Eva Mendes, but all the supporting roles are just that: almost personality-free background players there only to fill out scenes with the Grusinsky boys. Danny Hoch, as Bobby’s pal Junior, shows some promise, but the role is given any dimensions, any shape. He’s in the movie for only one reason, and once he fulfills that purpose, completely vanishes; he’s not even mentioned again.

The movie is very well made; the occasional violence is handled well, though I’m not sure what we’re to make of a scene in a police station, where an arrestee has just slashed his throat and is bleeding gorily to death on the floor, surrounded by a circle of helpless cops. Joe’s shooting is the most effective bit of violence in the film: it’s brief, unexpected and intense.

Supposedly, Gray made the film when someone suggested he make a movie about cops that featured a car chase, because the car chase here is showcased and vivid. It takes place in a blinding downpour (entirely CGI) during the day, as cars try to rocket through heavy traffic while their passengers blaze away at each other with a variety of guns. This is mostly seen from Bobby’s point of view after he has to take over control of his car when the driver is shot. The sounds of gunfire are shockingly loud, but we see only remote flashes of light. This helps give the sequence a believability that such scenes sometimes lack. But though the stunt drivers are skilled and the chase comes to a brutal end, it’s not going to join the ranks of great car chase scenes.

The music—composed by Wojciech Kilar, supervised by Dana Sano—is occasionally excellent. That blues-influenced title theme, the music behind Bobby’s hospital visit, and that for a few other scenes is expressive, moody and effective. But in a scene in which Vidal shows Bobby around a house where drugs are packaged, Gray uses a single droning tone that becomes annoying; it’s intended to ratchet up tension, and does that briefly, but enough becomes more than enough all too quickly.

There’s one great stunt—a man falls from a building and lands on his chest atop a chain-link fence—that has a powerful impact. So powerful that it’s not entirely believable that the character survives without even a cracked rib. The stunts in the car chase are also well staged.

“We Own the Night” wants to rouse audience emotions, but the effort is all too clear. The movie doesn’t have the emotional involvement of, say, an average episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” and is leagues away from “The Godfather,” evidently a main inspiration. We’ve been down these particular mean streets too often before, weekly on television. The movie will—and has—pleased some (it was well received at the Cannes film festival), and it features a reasonably good cast. But it’s familiar, routine material presented without the imagination and creativity necessary for the epic it wants to be.







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