We Own the Night

Written by Anne Stein and Emanuel Levy

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere, Competition)–“We Own the Night,” James Gray's third feature, continues to explore the same Russian-American cultural milieu that dominated “Little Odessa” and “The Yards,” and with the same actors, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, both of whom starred in his second feature, which premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

Taking an established genre–the policier melodrama-and setting it in the mean streets of New York City's Brooklyn of the late 1980s, Gray has tried to make a more emotional, character-driven family drama than is the norm. But end result is vastly disappointing, due to by-the-book storytelling and impact that falls short of the intended goal due to conventional narrative.

Though “We Own the Night” is not shot like a TV-drama, thematically, the text is no better or worse than the average episode of any of the crime series that currently dominate American TV, from “The Sopranos,” to “24,” to “The Wire,” and “Boston Legal,” not to mention shows of yesteryear, such as “Hillstreet Blues” and “NYPD.”

Gray would like to believe that he has made a personal film, but what unfolds on screen is so familiar that it comes across as formulaic storytelling. Anyone who has seen police movies and TV series of the past three decades will be able to predict, once the premise is established, the arc of each character, and to foresee long before the denouement who will survive and who will die-and in what manner.

In this and other respects, “We Own the Night” is a disappointment, particularly that it comes after 7-year-hiatus for Gray. His last picture was “The Yards,” in 2000, which was also underwhelming, both artistically and commercially.

It's one of the puzzles of contemporary film criticism, but James Gray has always been held in higher regard by European, particularly French, critics, than by their American counterparts. (It's noteworthy, though, that there were boos at the end of the press screening I attended as jury member). Even so, his hardcore defenders must see in his work qualities that we American critics don't. Commercially, too, Gray's work has no public support in the U.S. Both “Little Odessa” and “The Yards” underperformed.

Thus, it's safe to predict that Sony's Columbia, which picked up the film out of the Cannes Festival for $15 million, may not recoup its expense, and should not expect particularly strong box-office.

For one thing, the movie may be too intense and too much of a downer for the mass public. For another, inevitable comparisons will be made with Scorsese's Oscar-winning, far superior policier, “The Departed,” which, by the way, also co-starred Mark Wahlberg (and in similar role). Moreover, setting the story in the late 1980s makes “We Own the Night” a period piece– the whole movie has the aura of dj vu.

“We Own the Night” begins at the popular, stylish disco El Carib, in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, with Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) making love to his hot Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (played by the alluring Eva Mendes who, with the right role, but not this one, should become a star). Not surprisingly, their sex is interrupted at a crucial moment, when Bobby, the nightclub's manager, is called on duty.

We quickly find out that Bobby has turned his back on the family business, police work, chosen by his father and his brother, Joseph. As the manager of the Russian-owned nightclub, Bobby has changed his last name (which was Grusinsky) and continues to conceal (or play down) his connection to a long line of distinguished New York cops. Why we don't know. Is Bobby a “Rebel Without a Cause” type

Cool and efficient, Bobby is immersed in the here and now, oblivious to his family and his past. On the surface, life appears to be good: Every night is sort of a wild party, beginning with greetings of his friends and customers and continuing with dances with Amada to disco music.

As writer, Gray has decided to set his saga in New York City circa 1988, when the drug trade and crime rates were rapidly escalating. Bobby tries to keep a friendly distance from the Russian gangster Marat Bujayev (Israeli actor Moni Moshonov), who's operating out of his nightclub. It comes as no surprise that Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), an up-and-coming NYPD officer, with the blessing of his father Burt (Robert Duvall), a vet deputy chief of police, has targeted Vadim Mezshinski (Alex Veadov) the nephew of the club's owner Bujayev for drug trafficking. Predictably, Bujayev then puts a contract on Joseph. Turning point occurs when Joseph is shot and wounded by the Russian mafia, and his father becomes a victim, too, which forces him to reevaluate his lifestyle, existenceand identity.

Thematically, “We Own the Night” is a wannabe emotional drama about Bobby as a man who has chosen to hide his past only to discover that he has to confront his past and family heritage. All along, there are pressures, both formal and informal, on Bobby to quit his nightclub job and follow in the footsteps of his father, just like his brother Joseph, who's the family's prideor do something else which is worthier.

Unfortunately, “We Own the Night” is not even credible as a crime drama. In one, preposterously plotted scene, the Russian gangster manages to escape, after bring arrested in such a facile way that gives a bad name to Gray as a writer-and to the NYPD as a efficient crime-controlling force.

Dark in visuals and somber in mood, the movie embraces a fatalistic viewpoint that runs contrary to the basic American belief system of new beginnings, upward mobility, and limitless possibilities in the future. Gray uses the conventions of a genre movie as a point of departure to tell a story about a man caught by his destiny, his inevitable fate, and the internally conflicted emotions, yielded by brotherly love, loss, and betrayal.

One can take philosophical issues with Gray, as a writer and director who propagates a pessimistic worldview, according to which a mans ability to change his fate is more limited than we would like to believe, instead stressing such factors as flow of history, cultural pressures, and external events in shaping one's life.

End Note

“We Own the Night” takes its title from the motto of the 1980s-era NYPD street crimes unit. For that matter, former New York City celeb mayor Ed Koch amusingly appears as himself.

For a much more powerful family melodrama, set against the Russian mafia in London, I recommend that you see Cronenberg's “Eastern Promises,” boasting a towering turn from Viggo Mortensen.

Cast

Bobby Green – Joaquin Phoenix
Joseph Grusinsky – Mark Wahlberg
Amada Juarez – Eva Mendes
Bert Grusinsky – Robert Duvall
Michael Solo – Antoni Corone
Marat Bujayev – Moni Moshonov
Vadim Mezshinski – Alex Veadov
Jack Shapiro – Tony Musante

Credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a 2929 Productions presentation of a Nick Wechsler production.
Directed, written by James Gray.
Produced by Wechsler, Marc Butan, Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix.
Executive producers: Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Anthony Katagas.
Co-producers, Couper Samuelson, Mike Upton.
Camera: Joaquin Baca-Asay
Editor: John Axelrad
Music: Wojciech Kilar
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Art director: James Feng
Set decorator: Catherine Davis
Costume designer: Michael Clancy
Ssound: Thomas Varga

Running time: 117 Minutes