January/February 2008 -- We Own the Night. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall, Alex Veadov, Dominic Colon, Danny Hoch, Oleg Taktarov, Moni Moshonov, Antoni Corone, Craig Walker, Tony Musante, Joe D’Onofrio, Yelena Solovey, and Maggie Kiley. Music by Wojciech Kilar. Cinematography by Joaquin Baca-Asay. Production design by Ford Wheeler. Costume design by Michael Clancy. Edited by John Axelrad. Written and directed by James Gray. (Columbia Pictures/2929 Productions, 2007, color, 117 minutes.
MPAA Rating: R.)
As the opening title montage for We Own the Night closes, the film cuts to a familiar nightclub scene that places the audience in the late-1970s New York disco-club scene. Debbie Harry’s sultry voice blares “Heart of Glass” through the paper-thin walls as two obviously doped-up lovers are deep in flagrante delicto.
This wholly gratuitous scene, verging on pornography, is to let viewers know that picturesque actress Eva Mendes won’t be wasted in this film. Which is just as well, because Mendes is as useful to this urban tale as a box of chocolates is to a diabetic. That, and a subtitle telling you it’s 1988 (about a decade too late for the Studio 54 sound), are the movie’s main flaws.
Mercifully, having provided the requisite number of lurid shots to fill the movie’s preview reel, director James Gray soon dispenses with the gratuity. After vampish Mendes slinks into a room of partying cokeheads, she is permitted to switch gears and just be Joaquin Phoenix’s supportive love interest. The movie then becomes visually cohesive and compelling.
This gritty, moving cop drama is the saga of a Queens police family headed by patriarch Albert Grusinsky (Robert Duvall). Son Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) followed in dad’s footsteps, becoming precinct captain. Brother Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is the family’s black sheep: He doesn’t want anything to do with the family business, or even its name (he takes his mother’s maiden name).
Bobby runs the glitzy El Caribe nightclub in Brooklyn and thrives on a steady diet of coke, pot, and late-night partying. He feels more at home with the nightclub’s Russian owner, furrier Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov), and his family. Grandfatherly, yet still sporting a boychick’s face, Buzhayev looks at Bobby as fondly as he would his own son.
Eva Mendes is as useful to this urban tale as a box of chocolates is to a diabetic.
Despite the estrangement from his actual family, Bobby pays his obligatory respects when his father invites him to a police social function. There, Albert and Joseph take him aside for a private meeting with a couple of their police colleagues. They want Bobby to cooperate with a narcotics investigation of his club, to be their eyes and ears. While they haven’t found any dirt on club owner Buzhayev, they suspect that his nephew, Vadim—a treacherous, drug-dealing rodent (Alex Veadov, in a strong performance)—is moving huge amounts of the white stuff through the El Caribe.
Like so many celluloid tales of siblings on opposite sides of the law, good son Joseph’s disapproval of brother Bobby’s dismissive attitude toward the undercover gig echoes their father’s open disgust.
“I can smell it on you,” Albert rebukes his wayward scion, referring to much more than just the stench of pot smoke on his clothes. “Sooner or later, you’re going to be with us, or you’re going to be with the drug dealers.”
Bobby’s forced to choose sides after the police hit the club in a surprise raid. In retaliation, a would-be assassin shoots Joseph, who narrowly avoids death. Later the same night, Bobby finds himself sitting across from Vadim in a diner booth. The drug peddler brags to Bobby about the hit, confiding that the police chief is next on the list to be bumped off.
In a matter-of-fact montage, the director conveys what the audience knows but Vadim doesn’t: that Bobby is the wounded cop’s brother and the chief’s son. The suspense in this scene becomes unbearable as Bobby listens silently to the man; only the subtlest flicker of emotion crosses his poker face, and although only a second passes before the camera cuts to Vadim, it seems like an eternity.
Although this isn’t the end of the line, it’s where I step off this narrative train. Let’s just say that, through a series of twists and turns, the forces of good and evil collide with devastating results. What’s so refreshing is that those forces are clearly drawn, without the cloying postmodern tendency toward moral equivalence that’s rampant in today’s culture.
For over three decades, the template for the cop film genre has been Serpico. Sidney Lumet’s biopic honoring a lone officer’s undying integrity in the face of institutional corruption has spawned dozens of imitators. In these, the audience waits for the predictable other shoe to drop, as a rogue cop in the precinct is slowly unmasked as the real villain.
We Own the Night dares to run counter to that clichéd cynicism. Here, the men in blue are the good guys, and the drug-pushing thugs are the bad guys. Gray’s serious-as-a-heart-attack tale portrays police as the “thin blue line” that keeps civil society from backsliding into anarchy. Although many critics have compared this film to Martin Scorsese’s comeback picture The Departed (which, on balance, was a pro-cop film),it reminded me more of two of David Mamet’s best, Homicide and The Untouchables, in depicting its crime-fighting heroes as honorable and valorous.
We Own the Night also features a refreshingly old-fashioned narrative structure. The storytelling is straightforward, with no preposterous plot machinations. Blissfully missing as well are jumbled and provocative “set pieces.” So, when the film arrives at its climactic sequence—a car chase along a crowded Queens underpass—you feel its impact more intensely. Through cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay’s adroit camerawork and John Axelrad’s precise cutting, not a frame is wasted. They simultaneously convey a logical, rapid-fire sequence of events and the murky, disorienting sense of trying to navigate an out-of-control squad car through a torrential downpour. How they reconcile these contradictory visual motifs is nothing short of genius. I experienced the scene as though I were a passenger along for the horrific ride.
No pummeling of the ears with hyper-realistic surround sound, either. Composer Wojciech Kilar’s score hits all the right notes of solemnity and suspense. His eerie theme for vicious drug kingpin Vadim is a single note played on the organ, mezzo piano,a musical reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 spy thriller Secret Agent.
Because of this evocative cinematic approach, neither camera nor actors overwhelm. Robert Duvall is the movie’s moral anchor, delivering the same incontestable authority he’s brought to so many roles over the decades, such as the character Lieutenant Colonel “Bull” Meechum in The Great Santini. When Duvall says it, it sounds as if “it came from the burning bush.” I enjoyed Mark Wahlberg’s solid turn as Joseph. I don’t think he’s a great actor—he basically plays himself in most of his movies—but he plays himself with conviction. Character actors Antoni Corone and Tony Musante are equally effective as Albert’s veteran police lieutenants.
However, it’s Joaquin Phoenix who owns the screen, with a multi-faceted, explosive performance that reminded me a lot of a young Marlon Brando. The course of the picture follows him from rebellious prodigal son, to reluctant police informant, and eventually to resolute NYPD officer-recruit. Superficially, Phoenix’s character seems impelled toward this transformation by destiny, not unlike Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Yet, Gray wrote him to symbolize the power of free will. His brother admits to a bit of envy when Bobby makes the difficult moral choice of joining the force. “I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself,” Joseph confesses. “I just did what Pop wanted me to do.”
We Own the Night is an emotionally taxing though ultimately inspiring picture. Some critics might call it “formulaic,” but its presentation of cops as good guys is a formula rarely seen on the silver screen these days. In fact, I’d love to see Hollywood apply this formula of honoring our men in blue—and their mission—to our men in green.
But I ain’t holding my breath.