This is half of a good movie.
The first half.
The setup and premise are intriguing. Unfortunately, director James Gray, who also wrote the script, delivers a lot less than is promised. If you want to see Gray at the top of his game, check out Little Odessa.
With We Own the Night, Gray again visits the world of Russian organized crime in New York, but this time he has superimposed a family saga involving the NYPD onto the subject. In fact, the movie takes its title from the motto of the department’s Street Crimes Unit, which was disbanded in 2002.
Who really owns the night is the central question as the story unfolds and We Own the Night offers lots of subtle, contradictory and troubling hints at the answer. Unfortunately, Gray goes for a moralistic and, we would argue, totally unrealistic ending, making the question—which is really unanswerable—moot.
Joaquin Phoenix is Bobby Green, the manager and driving force behind one of the hottest nightclubs in Brooklyn in the late 1980s. Bobby’s got a gorgeous Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), and the full support of the owner of the club, a patriarchal Russian émigré named Marat (Moni Moshonov).
Bobby is warmly received by Marat’s family, fawned over by his wife—who constantly wants to feed him—and looked up to by other family members for the job he is doing running El Caribe, a sprawling club/dance hall that is packed with young, hip and fast-living New Yorkers.
Drugs, not surprisingly, are part of the club scene. And Russian gangsters, whether Bobby wants to accept it or not, are big in the drug trade.
All this matters because Bobby’s father, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), is a deputy chief with the NYPD and his brother, Joe (Mark Wahlberg), is a rising star in the department recently named captain and head of a narcotics strike force.
Bobby, we are told, uses his mother’s maiden name because of the business he is in and the prominence of his father and brother. To say that the siblings are estranged hardly begins to describe the relationship.
“The whole city is falling apart,” Joe tells his brother during one of their early verbal confrontations, which takes place at a beef-and-beer party to celebrate Joe’s promotion to captain. “Don’t you have any sense of responsibility at all?”
The event, sponsored by the Pulaski Society at a church hall, is nicely juxtaposed with the club scene at El Caribe that Bobby has to leave in order to attend the family affair. One is blue-collar. The other cool and sophisticated. Bobby has no trouble deciding which he prefers.
Faced with his brother’s question and already bristling at the unfriendly reception his Hispanic girlfriend has received from his family, Bobby pauses briefly, and replies, “Let me think. . . . No.”
So it’s no surprise when he initially rejects requests by his father and brother to help them by providing information about the Russian drug underworld.
“Sooner or later, either you’re gonna be with us or you’re gonna be with the drug dealers,” Deputy Chief Grusinsky tells his son, setting up the black-and-white moralistic theme that makes the second half of the movie all too predictable.
The target of the drug investigation is Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), who happens to be Marat’s nephew. Vadim’s reputation as a ruthless kingpin is established early on when he witnesses an associate being arrested at the club and, with the police in earshot, tells him, “Talk to them, and we go after your mother.”
A short time later, while in police custody and before he can be questioned, the Russian thug slits his own throat and bleeds out on the precinct floor.
Vadim’s take-no-prisoners approach—an accurate reflection of the wanton violence that is so much a part of the Russian drug underworld—extends to his dealings with the police investigating him. This eventually forces Bobby to choose sides.
After his brother is shot and seriously wounded, Bobby agrees to cooperate and help the police make their case. And the movie begins to slip off track.
Bobby and Amada become protected witnesses. Their relationship is strained. His agreement to testify leads to a rain-soaked car chase in which his father is killed. Then, in a 180-degree spin that challenges credulity, Bobby goes from being a protected witness to becoming a police officer—sworn in under a special department dispensation—and joins his brother in tracking down Alex.
A final showdown, in which Marat’s role in the drug underworld is also disclosed, includes a police attempt to literally smoke Vadim out of his hiding place in a marshy, wooded area near a riding stable. Not content to wait for the smoke to do its job, Bobby moves in with his badge and his shotgun.
HIT: The movie does a good job capturing the 1980s New York club scene and the subtle but violent nature of Russian organized crime.
MISS: This is New York, right? Home of tabloid journalism at its best? Gossip columns galore? Page Six? How long do you think the son of an NYPD Deputy Police Chief, even one using his mother’s maiden name, would go unmentioned as the manager of one of the hottest and most drug-infested nightclubs in the city? And how long after that do you think savvy Russian gangsters would keep him in their employ?
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “. . . this is an atmospheric, intense film, well-acted, and when it’s working it has a real urgency. Scenes where a protagonist is close to being unmasked almost always work. The complexity of Bobby’s motives grows intriguing, and the concern of his girlfriend Amada is well-used. We Own the Night may not solve the question of ownership, but it does explore who lives in the night, and why.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch has a cameo as himself in the hospital scene after Joe Grusinsky is shot.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: There are better movies about cops, gangsters and the Russian mob. Once is enough.
CASTING CALL: Christopher Walken was originally tapped for the role of Deputy Chief Grusinsky, but had to bow out because of other commitments.
BEST LINE: Lots of tough-guy cop talk, but the best line comes from Chief Grusinsky when he refuses to go along with a plan to bend the law in order to make a case.
“We don’t ever play in the dirt here,” he says. “Not ever . . . no matter what. If you piss in your pants, you can only stay warm for so long.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Yards (1999), another drama directed by Gray that stars Phoenix and Wahlberg. It’s based on a true story about politics and corruption set in New York City’s train yards.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Spurts of violence, but they’re in keeping with the story. It’s all realistic—except for the final showdown.
BODY COUNT: Fifteen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]