A film review by Craig J. Koban
WE OWN THE NIGHT
2007, R, 117 mins.
2007, R, 117 mins.
Bobby Green: Joaquin Phoenix / Joseph Grusinsky: Mark Wahlberg /
Burt Grusinsky: Robert Duvall / Amada Juarez: Eva Mendes /
Jack Shapiro: Tony Musante / Marat Bujayev: Moni Moshonov /
Vadim Nezhinski: Alex Veadov
James Gray’s new police thriller, WE OWN THE NIGHT, represents one of the most difficult of films to critique considering its elements, some of which work marvelously, some of which fall flat. This film occupies that always awkward middle ground between being a really absorbing and invigorating story filled with gritty and edgy characters and great performances and one that feels almost too self-consciously derivative and predictable. I found myself questioning the logic of the movie a lot, and even more times I found myself checking my watch.
WE OWN THE NIGHT charters territory that many other films, particularly those of Martin Scorsese, have already dived into, and to much better effect. Yet, the film sort of overcomes its own deficiencies by being a decent character drama. It may be a formulaic and pedestrian film about mobsters and the police that want to take them down, but the real heart of the film is its family dynamic between a man, his father, and his semi-estranged son.
The semi-estranged son in question is Bobby Green, played in yet another thoroughly strong and forcefully commanding performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He is a swinger and a hedonistic and drug addicted manager of a thriving nightclub in Brooklyn. His nights are an endless cycle of booze, drugs, and partying. His amoral lifestyle is one all night party of meet and greets and he is undeniably good at what he does. He, like every other nightclub owner, has a babe of a girlfriend, in this case named Amada (Eva Mendes, always physically fetching, but the not an always dependably gifted thespian). The nice angle here is that she truly loves Bobby, not his money, status, or the power he exudes. Bobby, in turn, reciprocates love back to Amada. In short: Life is good for him.
However, Bobby is not seen as a model citizen to his father and brother, who both work for the law. Bobby alienates his family primarily from his pleasure seeking and risky lifestyle, but even more so because he does not use his father’s last name. Green is Bobby’s dead mother’s maiden name, and this has never sat well with dear old dad, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall, escalating a somewhat bit part to levels only he can muster). Burt is actually the district police chief, so this makes his relationship especially dicey with Bobby.
Bobby’s brother does not appreciate his choice of lifestyle either. Brother Joseph (played by Mark Wahlberg, who seems to be playing a less volatile and acid tongued version of his cop from THE DEPARTED here) is a high ranking cop within dad’s precinct and has made it his personal mission to ensure that drug trafficking is eradicated. A new wave of narcotics has swept New York and the police’s attempts to thwart it have been largely unsuccessful. The title of the film is actually quite apt, seeing as it was also the slogan for the NYPD of the 1980's to gain a metaphorical strangle hold of the drug trade that had engulfed the streets. Joseph and his father are posters boys for this new enforcement regime that hopes to tackle this ever escalating dilemma.
The real problem could be Bobby himself. He has always tried to ensure that his real relationship with his police family is kept a secret. Why? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his nightclub has some ties to the Russian mafia. The club is owned by Marat Bujayev (played well by Moni Moshonov), who at first seems like one of those nice, congenial old Russian men that is easy to trust and like. Yet, deep down, Marat has deep ties to a Russian drug trafficking trade that seems to operate within Bobby’s club. Bobby is not implicitly involved, although he is a drug user, does not stop people from taking drugs in his place, and he sorts of turns a blind eye to most drug related concerns in his establishment.
Bobby’s eyes open up quite a bit when Marat’s dangerous and ruthless nephew, Vadim (played with icy cold malevolence by Alex Veadov), starts to use Bobby’s club as a main base of operations. Vadim actually asks Bobby at one point if he will join him in his drug empire, at the same time that Joseph is planning to take Vadim’s operations down for good. During one night there is a spontaneous drug bust, lead by Joseph, at Bobby’s night club and Bobby actually gets taken away in handcuffs due to his inebriated state. Joseph does not actually have enough to book Vadim, but he does send him a message (in a move that involves some real balls, he grabs Vadim’s roll of money and rips it in half right in front of him). Being a sadistic brute, Vadim orders a hit of Joseph and in a quick and brutal assassination attempt, Joseph is shot in the face and left nearly for dead.
Bobby starts to blame himself and begins to have a real crisis of conscience about who he is and what he does. Although his dad never precisely tells him Joseph's near death experience was Bobby's fault, he indirectly reinforces it. To make matters worse, it seems like an entire hit on Burt and the department has been ordered, which means that the police have to take out Vadim quickly. Bobby then decides to take action and - without his father knowing - he decides to go on an undercover mission with the cops to infiltrate Vadim’s drug operation.
It is here where WE ARE THE NIGHT started to loose me on a level of reality. From the perspective of who Bobby is and what he represents, I had some difficulty buying the notion that the cops would be willing to get close with him so expeditiously in a joint bust effort. The level of innate trust they have in Bobby does not seem to be credible at first. Secondly, there is a whole other issue with the fact that Vadim does not know that Bobby is actually related to police officers. Call me crazy, but I have never been in the mob, nor involved in drug trafficking, but I have seen enough mob movies to know that when you bring an outsider to your prime and secret base of operations, then you go out of your way to find out as much about him as possible. Go figure.
Of course, the drug bust nearly costs Bobby his life, but he and the coppers do manage to bust Vadim, but you just know that he’ll manage to break out of jail, discover the real relationship that Bobby has with the police chief, and that he’ll put a hit on Bobby, his girlfriend, and dad. It’s easy to see the arc of Bobby’s character, who will have to overcome inevitable personal turmoil to turn to the side that he should have been on to begin with to get rid of Vadim and his criminal organization once and for all. By the time the film made it towards its final 20 minutes - which are fairly tense and exciting - I kind of found myself yawning at the predictability of the film, not to mention laughing at how easily Bobby becomes a partner of the police department. Oh...he is shown taken a written test...and then over night is given a badge, a shotgun, and a bullet proof vest. C’mon!
Again, WE OWN THE NIGHT never really has the tenacity and inclination to do something fresh with the underlining material. The story and characters have been around before (Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED has some similar story threads, and the Russian mob was vastly more interesting in another better film this year, David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES). The narrative momentum - on top of being preordained - is also clumsy and slow moving. WE OWN THE NIGHT is 117 minutes, but it feels about 30 minutes longer.
Despite all of this, I think that Gray’s film works in the way it portrays the central character relationships and on a performance level. I like how Joseph and Bobby are presented as diametric opposites in terms of lifestyles and how their hostility to one another often dissolves into envy. Bobby wishes he had the love and respect that Joseph has from their father and Joseph, in subtle ways, seems to envy the freedom and independence that Bobby has as a club owner. The moral barometer and mediator between the two troubled boys is Burt, and Duvall is able to infuse in this character a sort of low-key power and authoritative influence over Joseph and Bobby. Wahlberg is good here riffing on yet another cop character and has started to regain some level of respect playing supporting roles in dramas, but Phoenix owns most of WE OWN THE NIGHT and has the most difficult part of anyone. He is a flawed persona that is egotistic and selfish, but when it comes down to it, he rediscovers what it means to be loyal.
James Gray has made better films (like THE YARDS, also starring Phoenix and Wahlberg, not to mention LITTLE ODESSA, which also dealt with dysfunctional family relationships) and there is a lot of WE ARE THE NIGHT that does not hold together well (besides what was previously mentioned, the last few minutes seem like a bad alternate ending that deserves a place on the DVD extra features, not as part of the movie). However, I enjoyed enough of the film because of its strong performances and the way the story creates a real interesting love-hate triangle between a father and his two sons. On a character level, the film is rich and textured, not to mention that Gray gives a real sense of dread and impending tension to many scenes, particularly in the film’s central action scene involving a high speed chase. The film overcomes its rigidly conventional elements are establishes itself as a competent and involving tale of family values, duty, and honor.