Sunday, October 5, 2008


The title to writer-director James Gray's new crime thriller "We Own the Night" (** out of ****) sounds like it concerns either insomniacs or vampires. Actually, the New York Police Department adopted the motto "We Own the Night" back in the 1980s as a slogan to publicize their efforts to reclaim the streets from evil drug pushers run amok. Unfortunately, despite its powerhouse celebrity cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, and Robert Duvall, and its authentic Big Apple locales, this plodding crime thriller ranks as both implausible and predictable. If you've seen any of the movies or TV shows made about the N.Y.P.D. during the 1980s or in the last twenty-five years, you won't find anything bigger or better in "We Own the Night." Indeed, Gray packs this urban potboiler with plenty of action, but he stages these scenes with little sense of flourish. "We Own the Night" qualifies as one of those 'us against them' actioneers. The bad guys are expatriate Russian mobsters that have infiltrated Brooklyn and are trying to conqueror the New York night club scene by selling kilos of souped up cocaine.

"We Own the Night" also qualifies as a 'brother versus brother' movie. The story takes place in 1988. N.Y.P.D. Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall of "The Godfather") has two sons. Lieutenant Joseph Grusinksy (Mark Wahlberg of "The Departed") is the apple of his father's eye. Joseph mastered dyslexia in his youth and went on to become a cop. When the story opens, Joseph has just been promoted to captain. Joseph has a wife and three kids. Meanwhile, Joseph's older brother Bobby Green (pudgy Joaquin Phoenix of "Walk the Line") is the black sheep of the family. Bobby manages a popular night club in New York called El Caribe for Russian emigrant, gray-haired Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov of "Forgiveness"), and Marat treats Bobby as if he were family. Of course, Bobby has never told anybody at the night club that he is the police chief's son. Moreover, Bobby has changed his last name Grusinsky to Green, his mother's maiden name. When Bobby isn't hobnobbing with Marat's family, he snorts cocaine and smokes marihuana with his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendez of "Ghost Rider") who displays few inhibitions. Neither Joseph nor the Chief approves of Bobby's behavior, but he doesn't care what they think. He lives to keep Amada happy and everything running smoothly at the El Caribe.

Things take a turn for the worse when Burt and Joseph warn him about their raid on the night club that he manages. They suspect that Marat's nephew, ruthless Russian mobster Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov of "Air Force One"), is smuggling huge quantities of cocaine. The bust takes place, and Bobby finds himself collared along with one of Vadim's henchman. No sooner have the police brought in the henchman than the man slices his own throat and dies in a pool of blood. The Russians are prepared to terminate anybody who interferes with their plans with extreme prejudice. Naturally, Bobby is infuriated with his father and older brother. Later, Bobby struggles in vain to convince them that these Russians have no respect for the N.Y.P.D. Joseph discovers this first-hand when a bold Russian hit-man shoots him in the face in front of his own house and then firebombs his car. Miraculously, Joseph survives this murder attempt. These Russians acts like standard hit men in movies that cannot hit a sardine in a can with a magnifying glass. Joseph winds up in the hospital for four months, and Wahlberg has nothing to do but snooze up until the finale. After Bobby is released from jail, Vadim asks if he would like to help him distribute his narcotics. The Russian mobster arranges to take Bobby blindfolded to a remote location so that he can sample the product. Since Joseph was nearly killed, Bobby has changed his mind about his Russian friends. He has also returned to the family fold like a prodigal son. However, neither Grusinsky knows that he has agreed to wear a wire. When Vadim finds the wire, chaos erupts, and the N.Y.P.D. storms the building. No sooner have the police placed Vadim behind bars than he fakes an illness and escapes in route to the hospital. Bobby's father puts Amada and him in protective custody. Bobby fears that Vadim will put a contract out on Amada. Somehow, word gets to the Russians. During a trip from one motel to another in the pouring rain, Russians try audaciously to kill Bobby and Amada. "We Own the Night" makes the N.Y.P.D. look like imbeciles. At this point, Bobby is fed up. He decides to join the N.Y.P.D. against Amada's wishes and take down the elusive Vadim permanently.

"We Own the Night" boasts enough plot for a trilogy of movies. "Little Odessa" director James Gray shoehorns so much information into the movie's bare bones 117 minutes that the action seems implausible. For example, Bobby's impetuous conversion from party animal to policeman lacks believability. It would have been more exciting if Bobby had turned vigilante and cornered Vadim. Mark Wahlberg fans are in for a shock, too, because he plays such a wimpy character. He's nothing like the characters that he played in either "The Departed" or "Shooter." Altogether, "We Own the Night" should have been called "We Own the Clich├ęs."

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