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This review was written for the festival screening of “We Own the Night.”
CANNES — With three feature films to his credit — “Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and now “We Own the Night” — writer-director James Gray makes essentially the same film over and over again. The focus is on male family members, fathers and brothers, and the setting is the corrupt world of cops and gangsters in New York immigrant communities. The past two films have come to Cannes, and neither has escaped boos following its press screening. The problem is not that Gray is an especially bad filmmaker but rather that he is an unimaginative one.
Clearly, these family themes contain a great deal of autobiography and mean much to Gray. But he insists on setting his analysis of the difficulties experienced by family members who go very separate ways, often on opposite sides of the law, in an overly familiar genre. So many great filmmakers have mined this territory before him that he is reduced to searching for scraps on the mine’s floor. Why does he continually want to go up against Scorsese and Coppola — not to mention “The Sopranos” — with these small family dramas?
“We Own the Night” — a phrase used by an ’80s-era NYPD street crime unit — is a more accomplished film than “Yards.” Yet it will fail to satisfy police movie buffs, as procedures are de-emphasized, and the drama is too perfunctory and obvious. Falling between the cracks as it does, the film’s boxoffice performance, despite the presence of producers-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg (who both starred in “Yards”) looks very average.
What Gray does best here is create an atmosphere of palpable tension and dread. Once a gangster puts out a hit on a family of cops, all of their lives are in danger every second. You feel the weight of this fate in their every move around Brooklyn.
Phoenix plays Bobby Green, who runs a Russian-owned nightclub in Brighton Beach. Because of this job, he has changed his last name to disguise the fact he comes from a Polish-American family of New York City cops. The name change also betrays an estrangement from his dad, semi-legendary deputy chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), and his brother, Joseph (Wahlberg).
The crucial problem here, if Gray seriously wants to focus on family, is the lack of explanation for this estrangement. Does Bobby not like cops? Or maybe just his brother? Did his dad favor his brother when he was young because Joseph had dyslexia? Perhaps he wasn’t breast-fed.
Speaking of which, where are the women in this family? Or, for that matter, where are the women in this movie, since the only major female role belongs to Bobby’s sexy Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amanda (Eva Mendes)?
With his dad’s encouragement, Joseph has targeted the nephew (Alex Veadov) of the nightclub’s owner (Moni Moshonov) for drug trafficking. The drug dealer resents this and puts out a contract on Joseph.
Joseph is seriously wounded but survives. Suddenly rediscovering brotherly love, Bobby agrees to wear a wire when he meets with the gangsters to inspect his drug operation since the nephew wants Bobby to become involved in the business.
But the operation goes wrong, a shootout ensues, Bobby’s family connections are exposed and a contract is out on all male family members. Which, among other things, causes Eva to have major reservations about continuing a relationship with a guy who now wants to become a cop.
What follows is all too routine and predictable — the escape of the drug dealer, a betrayal by a friend, an ambush of cars escorting Bobby and Eva to a safe house and a death in the family. The climax, too, reminiscent of that in “The French Connection,” is indifferently staged.
The acting is solid but unexceptional. Tech credits are more on the money: Gray shoots the film in a blue-gray that feels ominous and grim. Even here, though, predictability reigns: Nothing good ever happens in a film shot in such a color scheme.
WE OWN THE NIGHT
2929 Prods. presents a Nick Wechsler production
Screenwriter-director: James Gray
Producers: Marc Butan, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Nick Wechsler
Executive producers: Mark Cuban, Anthony Katagas, Todd Wagner
Director of photography: Joaquin Baca-Asay
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Music: Wojciech Kilar
Costume designer: Michael Clancy
Editor: John Axelrod
Bobby Green: Joaquin Phoenix
Joseph Grusinsky: Mark Wahlberg
Amanda: Eva Mendes: Burt: Robert Duvall
Vadim: Alex Veadov
Marat Bujayev: Moni Moshonov
Running time — 117 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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