Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes it rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa.
When we first meet Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the loose living nightclub manager is pursuing hedonistic pleasure with reckless abandon. Considered an indirect member of the criminal Bujayev family, he tries to keep his nose clean while avoiding confrontations with his cop relatives. Brother Joseph (Mark Walhberg) is one of New York City’s finest, and dad Burt (Robert Duvall) is a well respected captain. They’ve always viewed Bobby as a black sheep, from his choice of girlfriend – skanky Puerto Rican party girl Amanda (Eva Mendez) to the decision to change his last name from ‘Grusinsky’ to ‘Green’. Still, the man has his inroads with the mob, and so when his kin comes calling for a favor (Joseph wants to put the pinch on Russian dope dealer – and Bujayev nephew - Vadim Nezhinski) – Bobby tries to help. The resulting mess puts his father and brother in harms way, and threatens his comfortable, if morally ambiguous, place between right and wrong.
In a world where movies like State of Grace, Carlito’s Way, The Departed, Eastern Promises, and other dark double crossing mafia dramas didn’t exist, We Own the Night might have worked. Indeed, it offers exceptional performances, a twisty, complicated script, and lots of subjective scope. From the massive opening sequence inside the multi-story El Caribe nightclub, to the last act firefight along the New York/New Jersey shoreline, this is a movie that understands the need for impressive backdrops. It even provides a potent action scene or two, as when a wet and rainy day turns into a life or death car chase between our players. There is palpable urban grit, a real sense of a city under siege. Why Gray chose to set the film in the mid ‘80s remains a mystery, however. Aside from a few shots of post-disco decadence, the era is not really important.
Yet that minor detail perfectly illustrates We Own the Night’s main failing. Several times throughout the course of this otherwise average thriller, we find ourselves wondering about the artistic and narrative choices being made. For example, the Grusinsky family seems like your typical blue collar clique. They embrace each other with a weariness born out of the immigrant experience. But there’s very little insight into their interpersonal problems. It appears to be as simple as “be a policeman” or “be an enemy”. Neither Duvall nor Phoenix have a moment that fully describes their distance from each other, while Walhberg appears pissed off as a matter of implied birthright. We get ancillary comments from the personal peanut gallery (when did Toma’s Tony Mussante get so old?) but the lack of an actual anchor keeps us from really getting to know these men.
The same goes for the Bujayevs. Sure, Gray needs to maintain a certain level of secrecy in order to get his last act reveals to work, but aside from a kind hearted momma earnestly shoveling food toward Bobby, we get no firm indication of how they interact. Unlike Cronenberg’s Promises, which this film had the unfortunate luck of following, We Own the Night never allows us behind the scenes of the inner working of the Russians. Even supposed heavy Vadim Nezhinski supplies a kind of villainy in name only. He’s intimidating, and appears capable of some substantive cruelty, but he’s not the threat we need in this type of thriller. He’s more of a look than a legitimate enemy. And since the storyline centers on dope – not something more enigmatic like white slavery or influence peddling – the routine aspects of such an approach become all the more apparent.
Thankfully, the acting saves this sagging excuse for a crime flick. Phoenix has the much more difficult role here, and he brings a nice believable balance between duty and disinterest. We feel his need to be accepted, to be part of a group that appreciates him for what he is, not what he can be. Similarly, Duvall delivers on what is, in essence, a thankless icon role. As the dad who’s demanding to a fault, he gives good paternalism. But there are times, as when violence threatens his sons, where he turns off the machismo and lets his feelings show. Wahlberg, sadly, is a waste. While trying to play tough, and then troubled, he comes across as weak and wimpy. Gone is the chest-thumping bravura of The Departed. In its place is a weird wounded quality that never quite provides a sense of dimension. With Eva Mendez taking back everything good she did in Ghost Rider (she is insignificant here) and Danny Hock delivering a star-making turn as Bobby buddy Louis, it is safe to say that We Own the Night is as mixed in its performances as it is in its messages.
Indeed, Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts. With limited amounts of blood, a real attempt to have events play out in some manner of insular, unidentifiable logic, and the persistent problem of witnessing characters do things that are no longer new or novel, James Gray ends up providing further proof that, as a meaningful marketplace of invention, Tinsel Town is trapped in an endless cycle of sameness – and its not just the redux fueling the reputation. At this point in the artform, certain genres need a well deserved rest. The mafia may still grab the culture’s attention, but as We Own the Night illustrates, the window of viability has narrowed significantly.