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We Own the Night

dir: James Gray
[img_assist|nid=62|title=Maybe we should kiss to, you know, break the tension|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=290|height=238]
That’s pretty arrogant isn’t it, saying that you own an event of such all encompassing magnitude? That’s like saying you own the words “yesterday”, “blowjob” or “craptacular”. Who did the NYPD think they were kidding when they took the phrase as their motto in the 1980s?

Yes, We Own the Night is what it looks like: a moody cop drama. And though it smells generic, looks generic and tastes generic, it’s not entirely generic. It doesn’t feel like a mass-produced slab of a movie product. It’s thoughtful and serious, where most flicks of its ilk concentrate more on squeezing through the formula like toothpaste out of a tube.

The drama focuses more here on the characters than the plot, which, less face it, is the plot of 30,000 other films: There’s cops, and there’s bad guys, cops chase bad guys, bad guys kill or hurt cops, cops kill bad guys. Et cetera, etc.

It’s a plot as old as cinema. But the story about the dynamics of the cop family in turmoil is the focus here.

Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is the manager of one of the hottest nightclubs in New York called El Caribe. As the film opens, we are informed that the era, though it looks like the disco era, is actually 1988. For reasons I don’t understand yet am not going to complain about, Blondie’s Heart of Glass plays as Amada (Eva Mendes), Bobby’s horny and possibly coked up girlfriend writhes on a couch playing with herself. Bobby joins her and keeps the action going before fingerbangus interruptus occurs. It’s a hot opening for a flick that never again ventures forth in such delectable directions. Which is a damn shame, because Eva Mendes has never done any better acting work, nor will she ever again.

He has to go across the street to the apartment where his kindly and benevolent father figure boss Marat (Moni Moshonov) resides. Everyone in the Russian household acts like he’s the favourite son, with much love and much compulsion to eat more food than a person ever really wants. He feels loved and expresses love to these people.

Obligation then further prompts him to visit his actual family afterwards, where the reception isn’t anywhere near as welcoming.

See, Bobby is a charming, good time guy more interested in getting by and having a good time than any of the big picture stuff. Though he realises that many of the club’s patrons are probably involved in organised crime, and though he enjoys the proceeds of such crime (in the form of the steady supply of quality drugs he gets to imbibe), he is not a part of the criminal world.

In the eyes of his family, though, his real family, he might as well be. His father is a police chief (Robert Duvall), his brother is a decorated police captain (Marky Mark Wahlberg), and their entire family and extended family seem mired in this complete world of policeness. They are less public servants than they are a tightly-knit tribe. His father and brother treat him both with contempt and disdain, but they warn him at least that tough times are ahead for clubland.

The era, as represented, is shown to encompass the opening salvos in the War on Drugs. Even though the film never really nails a look that makes much sense, or that gives a real sense of the times (it manages little more than a mishmash of 70s looks and a guy vaguely dressed like one of the Thompson Twins), it has to tell us that it is around the time when the cops look like they were losing control of the streets of New York.

The Russian mafia is depicted as having come into its own around now, controlling the entire supply of drugs to New York, and striking fear into the hearts of cop and citizen alike. The tales of their brutality creates this aura around them, to the point where the cops here don’t look at the inevitable confrontation as one about the law versus crime. It’s about one tribe versus another, and their tribe doesn’t look like it’s prepared to win.

Of course this has nothing to do with reality. If I believed all the books and films I ever read about American crime, I’d simultaneously have to believe that the traditional Italian mafia, the Russian mafia, the Chinese Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, the Colombian cartels, and African-American and Mexican gangs were all concurrently the toughest and most ruthless etc etc and all controlled etc etc and terrified the police more than they’d ever etc etc before.

That’s not history: that’s the basis for a wonderfully violent and entertaining computer game like the Grand Theft Auto series. Or a movie.

My question whenever I see this stuff about the Russian mafia is: so in what way were they really that different from any of the other organised crime arseholes who would torture and kill people for profit or for talking to the authorities? But but but, the Russians would kill your family and your pets and your neighbours and their pets and their neighbours’ friends and their neighbours’ friends’ pets and their -

Sure they did, Keyser Soze. Anyway, in this New York, the police really want to catch a particularly evil Russian called Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), who allegedly has a penchant for cutting people’s heads off and stuffing their penises into their decapitated mouths. Sounds very unhygienic to me.

In the family’s opinion, Bobby is in a good position to help them out since he’s in with the Russians, and they have no idea what Bobby’s pedigree is. Bobby, at first, has no interest in becoming a de facto cop, especially not for his brother and father who treat him like shit anyway.

That is, until the Russians start trying to kill everyone and their pets and their pet’s pets and etc.

The messages, such as they are, have to do with the ties of family. I know it’s hardly novel or radically new as a topic of conversation. Joaquin Phoenix makes the transition from Bobby’s heartfelt desire to revel within the luxurious folds of the surrogate family he has created, to wanting nothing more with every fibre of his being than to be a part of his real family again. Everything that compelled him to distance himself now serves to push him back in ways that require a great deal of Old Testament-type sacrifice.

Phoenix is a curious actor in that he can be great and terrible within the confines of the same role. He reminds me a lot, and I’m embarrassed for saying this, of a young Marlon Brando on a good day in his youth, when he could manage to combine this masculine brutishness with an almost graceful vulnerability. He only has one really bad scene in this film, depicting a fight between Bobby and his girlfriend where he obviously had no idea how to play the scene and ended up summoning the shittiest take he could muster on the subject matter at hand. It’s pretty embarrassing.

It’s a short scene, and the film is two hours long, so it doesn’t ruin anything. Duvall does what he’s done in every film he’s been in over the last 60 years, although he’s pretty old and crotchety these days, and looks like he should just be yelling at kids to stay off of his lawn.

Wahlberg gives a performance that is as one-note as every performance he’s ever given, but that doesn’t detract too much from the role. His decent work in The Departed carries over a bit to the extent that I’ll cut him a bit of slack. He also manages to nail the very last scene in the film, which could have been awful if he hadn’t played it right, and would have rendered the ending clumsy and mawkish instead of powerful and complicated.

It is a slow, weighty, serious, unhurried flick for most of its length, and it’s not in a rush at all to tell its story, such as it is. The good scenes predominately have to do with two people talking at each other most of the time, but the tension of an undercover scene, a nightmarish car chase through sheets of black rain and the hunt for a criminal in a burning field of tall grass complement the dramatic scenes, instead of detracting from them. It’s shot with a good eye towards mournful but elegant compositions, but isn’t showy for the sake of it.

Other than that I can see it being of little interest to most people, since it lacks the fireworks of most crime flicks and leaves out entirely the transgressive elements that make dumber audience members aspire to be like the criminals, thinking as they do that a life of crime has no downside and looks and feels pretty much like an R&B video clip. I’m not sure if people will really relate to Bobby’s character or his story, but most people can understand the impulse of those who’ve rejected their family to still be protective of them, to the point where they become what they previously hated.

Everyone understands hate, don’t they?

7 times I would have stayed with the other life, the nightclubs and the Puerto Rican girlfriend instead out of 10

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“Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” – We Own the Night

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