'Night' Adds Nice Digital Splashes to a Dry Plot
The best scene in the otherwise lugubrious new crime thriller "We Own the Night" is a car chase in the vicinity of New York's JFK airport. Amid a torrential rainstorm on a busy stretch of highway, Russian mobsters pursue police vehicles whisking the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Eva Mendes to an undisclosed location. Guns blazing, the mob goons bash their vehicle into the unmarked police car. Behind the wheel Phoenix narrowly misses a jackknifing semi trailer skidding out of control.
The basic ingredients in this scene are nothing new, really, except for one digital wrinkle: The rain is fake. It was added later. It looks fantastically realistic in a subtle way. And it explains why you're seeing stunt driving on slick, dangerous streets that would not be possible if the precipitation were legit.
Twice, writer-director James Gray rouses his story, and the audience, out of an atmospheric fog. It happens on the digitally moistened freeway, and in an earlier sequence depicting a drug bust near the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. Again, nothing new, but the action's not predictable or stretched across the usual suspense beats; it's quick and brutal. Too much of the rest of "We Own the Night" is predictable, when it isn't merely improbable.
In the Warner Bros. heyday of the 1930s, the saint/sinner dichotomy reigned supreme. In "Angels With Dirty Faces" Pat O'Brien played a priest and James Cagney, as his lifelong pal, turned into a hoodlum. Gray's film pulls a variation on this, setting the story in 1988, focusing on an upright cop and his coke-snorting nightclub entrepreneur/wastrel sibling, the focus of the piece.
Phoenix plays Bobby, who manages a mobbed-up club in Brooklyn in the High Cocaine era. He's the black sheep; his policeman brother (Mark Wahlberg, in a role a lot less interesting than his role in "The Departed") is the apple of his police chief father's eye. Duvall plays the father, whose department is determined to stem the flow of narcotics into a city that has devolved into all-out warfare, as the dialogue keeps reminding us. Mendes plays Phoenix's squeeze, who harbors dreams of "a lotta kids ... big house ..." She's just like the good-hearted tramps of old, but with bigger hair.
I'm no plausibility maniac, but early on in "We Own the Night" the screenplay establishes Bobby, Mr. Hotshot and party freak, as running the coolest club around. Somehow, though, not a single one of his shady colleagues has gotten wind of his familial ties to the law. (Queens isn't very far from Brooklyn.)
Gray's writing lacks the punch and zing that might take your mind off such rickety plotting. The film has aspirations: Bobby's redemption takes center stage, as circumstances force him to work undercover in order to catch the dope-smuggling Vadim (Alex Veadov) and get right with his own soul. Yet the story remains oddly unaffecting, and Gray's camera sense is visually lethargic outside the two big action sequences. The director's "Little Odessa," covering much of the same outer-borough Russian mob waterfront, worked better overall. And there's a film in theaters right now that does a great deal more with another set of Slav-mobsters in London: "Eastern Promises."
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