The Reeler


October 11, 2007

We Own the Night

Brisk but boring crime drama unmitigated by a few good performances

Enter James Grey's We Own The Night a few minutes late, and you might assume it's another early '80s crime drama eulogizing an era when "Heart Of Glass" boomed cavernously through discotheques whose glitz-and-cocaine ambiance could be lifted straight from Scarface outtakes. The men speak in the macho, booming tones of early Scorsese characters (before utter self-parody took over); in this world, it's proper etiquette to chide someone for bad behavior by asking if they're "an animal." At one point, Bobby Green (a strangely bloated Joaquin Phoenix) inexplicably adopts Robert De Niro's speech patterns from the latter half of Raging Bull, mumbling his way into sorrow.

Perhaps it saved money on production design to set the film in 1988, an era whose precise look is harder to pin down than the club's eternal 1978 -- nothing outside the disco visually ties We Own The Night to any particular era, a passel of beat-up vintage cars notwithstanding (they look like the seen-better-days vehicles on my Bushwick block). In this magical parallel universe, the crack cocaine epidemic is unheard of -- instead, Bobby is asked to join an 87 percent pure coke distribution scheme. He politely declines, naively assuming that running a huge disco owned by a genial seeming Russian (Moni Moshonov) is a good way to make an honest living.

Grimacing dad Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) and brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) know better, which is why they're cops who harangue Bobby as to whether or not he cares about the "war going on outside." He doesn't, until his boss's malevolent, mustachioed nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) starts shooting up police members to make a point about efficient business practices. He chooses to start with Bobby's brother, unaware that Bobby's last name is an anglicization of Grusinsky. (The idea that the Polish cops -- wherever they were in 1988 -- might be at ethnic odds with the Russian gangsters is, oddly enough, never even hinted at.) Reprisal, tragedy, etc. ensue.

We Own The Night
is a movie instinctively convinced of its own tragic dimensions, a would-be saga of familial division and reconciliation, the futility of revenge and the bitter dregs of dishonest living: news for the clueless, a prodigal son redux. Despite itself, it's fun for a while -- period details may be off (Todd McCarthy bitchily lays them out over at Variety), but Duvall is as scary as ever while Wahlberg remains an expert at being upright without seeming sanctimonious. Reasonably clear and compelling in the exposition of Bobby's downfall, the film peaks with a sting gone wrong that is violent enough to temporarily cover up its self-regard.

But tragedy is a tough sell, especially in a world that seems fabricated while insisting on its own authentic grittiness. As We Own The Night progresses, we're left almost solely in the company of Phoenix and partner Eva Mendes. Slurring and wincing his way through the film, Phoenix seems to be suffering from nothing more than a few drinks too many; as always, Mendes can't act, though to be fair the screenplay requires little other than looking hot and whining when she's deprived of luxury. Their downfall is engineered by a worst-case scenario screenplay where bullets fired point-blank won't kill you if a character needs to live, but land with deadly precision when aimed through a windshield during a car-chase on a rainy day. Brisk but boring, the film doesn't end so much as peter out, allowing Bobby to do the right thing after enough people have died and it's time to wrap things up.

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