October 14, 2007

Movie Review: We Own the Night

In the 1980's New York City was filled with crime and the Russians were flooding the streets with drugs. In their efforts to reclaim the city from its seedier criminal element the NYPD took on the slogan "We Own the Night." This was made a part of the uniform patch as they took to the dark streets and began the long task of getting it cleaned up. As a slogan the phase is effective and should succeed in getting you amped up to get out there and start the clean up; however, as a movie title it is a little less effective. Considering the epic feel the the phrase carries with it (at least to me), the personal nature of the film makes it an underwhelming choice. As for the contents of the film, the results are solid, effective, but ultimately as underwhelming as the title.

The plot of We Own the Night is nothing new, the basics of the plot have been around for thousands of years. You could actually read the pitch in the Bible. That's right, the story told in We Own the Night can be traced back to a parable told by Jesus. Of course, it is not exactly the same, but the structure can easily be gleaned from this story from two thousand years ago. The parable of "The Prodigal Son" has been taken and reformed into a personal story of two brothers, a father, and the Russian mob which threatens to tear them apart. Now it is a good riff, even if it takes that Biblical bed and pretties it up with the clichés of the crime drama. The result is competent, if slightly bland, punctuated with some blood and spiced with some enticing action sequences.

The film opens with a series of black and white photographs of police in the 80's, in the precinct house and making busts. It cuts from there to an erotic encounter between night club manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) and his party girl girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). It is a scene heightened by apparent drug use and sets the stage for what Bobby is all about. Having fun, making money, and assuming a don't ask attitude with regards to what drug dealing may or may not be going on within the confines of the club. In this setting, Bobby is the king of the night as reinforced by his boss, Russian club owner Marat Buzhayev(Moni Moshonov).

On the other side of town the rest of Bobby's family are having a party of their own. His brother, Joseph (Markl Wahlberg), is celebrating his promotion to captain and appointment as the head of an organized crime unit that will focus on the Russian mob. Do you see where this is going? Also in attendance is their father, police chief Burt (Robert Duvall). Bobby shows up under cover of darkness, as the club runner keeps his police family ties on the down low. You know, it would be bad for business.

Anyway, Bobby's family approaches him about helping on the intel side of the game as the primary suspect is known to frequent the club. Bobby declines, and so begins the downward spiral of family rivalry, mob violence, and eventual redemption. But at what cost?

The problem is that I could see much of the story coming from a long way off. That does not make this bad on its own, but it certainly didn't help. There was not a lot of surprise as everyone went through the motions. Was there suspense? Yes, and a few times it had me on the edge of my seat. However, for the most part I felt detached from the action. It is a feeling I am having a hard time putting into words.

There is no doubt that James Gray has crafted a competent film. It is undeniable that Joaquin Phoenix gave a strong performance. However, the script left a lot to be desired. The are some things that make a little sense, such as no one knowing about Bobby's family, surely someone would have known. Other elements are puzzling as well, like how the Russian bad guy was able to evade the police noose on a couple of occasions, and Bobby's unquestioned absence for an extended period of time.

What saved the film for me are a couple of fantastic set pieces. There is a car chase in the rain that is absolutely breathtaking. It is one of the best chases I have scene in recent years, alongside Death Proof and Deja Vu. It is a scary chase that keeps you guessing and never leaves the realm of reality. Next to that is the scene in Vadim's base of operations. It is just dripping with tension and when it hits the fan, well let's just say you won't be able to look away.

Bottomline. In the end, We Own the Night is an entertaining drama that is a good watch yet fails to really expand upon the clichés of the genre. It has a strong cast that lends the movie a good deal of credibility, plus it is shot well in a nice and gritty fashion. Still, it is not as strong as I had hoped.

Mildly Recommended.


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