In the unintended fantasy “We Own the Night” the NYPD takes a butt-whippin’ to which it responds with ACLU, by-the-book restraint. After the squad endures two assassination attempts, one serious, the other fatal, the audience is asked to accept a portrayal of police behavior not even credible in a TV series, let alone a movie.
The title “We Own the Night” was adopted as the motto of the Street Crimes Unit whose greatest claim to fame, depending on whom you’re talking to, was putting forty-one bullets into an unarmed street peddler, or helping to making the streets of New York a safer place.
In either case, these journeymen officers of the law, the varied personalities employed in an impossible job, are missing. Instead we get the policemen (no women) we met in kindergarten, who rescue kittens and help old ladies to cross the street.
This isonly one of the several reasons that the movie was booed at Cannes and subsequently received mixes reviews (the French critics liked it).
Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) manages a popular nightclub in Brooklyn owned by a Russian family. A healthy and handsome young man, he orchestrates an ongoing celebration—a party complete with all the fixin’s.
In spite of all the temptations, he keeps his indulgences measured and the thriving den of iniquity under control. His beautiful girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), has just agreed to move in with him, his boss praises his work and everything is coming up roses.
While his hands are basically clean, he’s aware there is more going on in the club than shows on the surface.
A member of the Grusinsky family with a history in New York law enforcement, he has taken his mother’s maiden name Green to avoid being stigmatized by his association with the authorities.
Family patriarch, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), serves in the upper ranks of the NYPD into which Bobby’s older brother Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) has just been promoted. Bobby, for not following in these footsteps, is considered somewhat of a black sheep.
Joseph sees his brother as a disgrace. And even though it’s not articulated, the fact the he returns home with a Puerto Rican girl seems to punctuate his distance from the clan.
The family warns Bobby, an infrequent visitor to their midst, that cocaine distributors are working out of his club, implying there’s going to be a crackdown and suggesting that the disco manager might want to keep his eyes open for information. He declines.
Led by Bobby’s bother, the cops hit the club and succeed in doing little but pissing the dope dealer off. He responds by ordering a hit on Joseph—a bullet through the head which the officer survives.
Now Bobby, up to now just kickin’ it with his boys at the club, indulging in a bit of self-medicating, has been drawn into the mess. To further complicate his life, the drug dealing son of the club’s owners, witnessing the manager’s capabilities, offers him an opportunity in the dope sales department, recruiting him as though they were selling Tupperware.
Writer and Director James Gray boasts a history of proven movie-making skills. But something went awry. He evidently wanted to make a piece about a character who couldn’t escape his fate; an idea lost in a a crowded, sloppy, and confusing narrative.
After the early previews received less than a sterling reception, Gray subsequently gave explanations suggesting he employed techniques reminiscent of Shakespeare. You can even detect Greek tragedy and biblical analogies, which in the wide-release market won’t earn you enough for a phone call to your agent, should he or she decide to pick up.
The result is profoundly mediocre, especially when you consider the strength of the cast. The car chase, which is short, but excellent, proves the lone exception. Otherwise the film, especially the script, in a genre that becomes bolder with every season feels like something even more ancient than the 1980’s era in which it is set.
Gray’s issues in this particular offering suggest nothing chronic. He shows more talent in this miss than others do in success. His roots are close to the ground and real lives of people. He will recoveru and by revisiting some of his traditional literary heroes realize the key component in wide public success was and still is simplicity.
One top film reviewer, having seen an earlier preview of “We Own the Night”, suggests that you may not get it the first time, while two or three viewings may yield a deeper meaning. I highly doubt it. But if that is the case it won’t be around long enough for you to get the opportunity.