We Own the Night goes from genuine action to bland emotion
by Lisa Slade
The most worthwhile scene in writer/director James Grayâ’s We Own the Night comes smack-dab in the middle. Itâ’s a high-speed car chase/shoot-out on a rainy New York highway. The stakes are high and the adrenaline is higher. The tension is amplified by the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of windshield wipers and the clack of assault weapons being brandished. The anxiety is palpable. Itâ’s a scene that leaves you exhausted, like you were right in the middle of the action and came through, but not without paying a price. Itâ’s the kind of scene that punches you in the gut and dares you to think about anything else while youâ’re watching it.
The next scene is not so good. Leading man Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is locked in a conversation with his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) about their future and their feelings. They fight and scream. In this one terrible segment, weâ’ve moved from the genuine to the bland and exaggeratedly emotional. The contrast shows how the movie works (as an action movie) and how it doesnâ’t (as a convincing drama).
The central conflict of We Own the Night is based on two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Green wants to live it upâ"drugs, hot girlfriend, and a hit nightclub. Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) is a cop. He wants to protect and obey and defend the law, just like his police-chief father (Robert Duvall). Green and Grusinsky just happen to be brothers, but Greenâ’s changed his last name to distance himself from the drug-busting, crime-fighting Grusinskys. But when Green and his club get intertwined with drug trafficking and the Russian mob, and the Grusinskys start a campaign to get rid of all the drugs in New York, things get complicated.
Gray (who also wrote and directed Little Odessa and The Yards) offers at least three significant sub-plots, maybe more. We Own the Night hints at family, loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and justice. But the film only touches on each theme briefly, insinuating a lot without showing much. The hints never add up to much more than hints.
The cast is almost entirely excellent, however, despite the thin characters theyâ’re given. Phoenix, of Walk the Line fame, is hypnotizing as the bombastic, troubled Green, and Wahlberg is calculating as Joseph Grusinsky. Mendes as Greenâ’s girlfriend and club waitress is the only weak link; she canâ’t quite rise above Grayâ’s underdeveloped script.
Despite its numerous sub-plots and heavy themes, the story is never really convincing. Thereâ’s a lot of running around in dark places, laborious scene-setting, and needless situational dramaâ"such as the scene where the Grusinkys hold a family meeting to discuss police issues in a secluded room at a partyâ"than a plot like this needs, if Gray wants it taken more seriously than any other cop drama. Coincidences abound and the characters live in a world where no one adequately analyzes the situation before leaping in.
Itâ’s important to note that the best scene comes in the middle of the film, because that fact points to some basic flaws: namely the beginning and end of the film. The beginning sets up a heady, profound plot that totally ignores the thrilling part of the movie, which only emerges halfway through We Own the Night. The end tries so hard to tidy up all the loose edges in a heartfelt, Hollywood way that it loses whatever originality it might have started with. We Own the Night is desperate to be taken seriously. How can you tell? Gray tells you over and over again. Maybe if he werenâ’t so insistent on his movieâ’s importance We Own the Night might come closer to fulfilling its serious action drama potential. Instead itâ’s doomed to sit in the shadows of other, better movies.
Movie Guru Rating:
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LOL comes off formless, even haphazard at first, as electronic musician Alex (Kevin Brewersdorf) remotely lusts over a hot girl he â“metâ” over the â’net, everydude Tim (Swanberg) mostly ignores his girlfriend Ada (Brigid Reagan), and Timâ’s buddy Chris (C. Mason Wells) pines for his long-distance amour (Greta Gerwig). The big leap for viewers born before, say, 1982, will be how much of their interaction (and the storytelling) is conducted via e-mail, instant messaging, web video, and cell phone. As the film unspools, however, it becomes clear that this is precisely the point. Alex manipulates sweet Walter (Tipper Newton) into going way out of her way to help him meet his intangible virtual crush, oblivious to the bird in hand. Tim isnâ’t cheating on Ada, but he is spending an awful lot of time with his laptop. And in LOLâ’s most relatable/cringable storyline, Chrisâ’s cellular lifeline to his love threatens to swamp them both.
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