Though the Russian mob is prone to bad press, they may make for good box office, especially considering James Gray’s We Own The Night and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises last year. Director James Gray pulls together with mixed results a new take on crime families versus those of the shared DNA kind with We Own The Night, from his old bag of archival tricks that made The Yards and Little Odessa the right stuff on screen.
Joaquin Phoenix walks the line here on shaky ground between cops and crooks, as potential bad boy Bobby Green, manager of El Caribe, a glitzy, raucous late 1980s Brighton Beach disco owned by dope dealing Russian mobster and father figure to Bobby, Marat Bujayev (Israeli actor Moni Moshonov). Bobby has good reason to gravitate to this surrogate father, however shady, since his own long estranged dad Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) is the local police chief who does not look kindly on his son’s occupation of choice, and is in fact about to stage a raid on the swanky joint and bust all the principal players and drug dealers on the premises. And Green finds himself in the peculiar position of being collared by his own brother and dad’s favorite son, ambitious NYPD rookie Joseph (Mark Wahberg).
A weird dynamic emerges in We Own The Night, where the gangsters are more bonded as a brotherhood than the cops in pursuit who have real family ties that seem to fall by the wayside. Bobby himself feels such shame and embarrassment about his family and their Polish roots, that he’s changed his name to Green and doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. There’s also the fear that his mobster pals may suspect Bobby’s a police snitch if they get wind of his family connections.
When the gang’s godfather Bujayev unleashes a vendetta against the Gusinsky father and son cop team in retaliation for their assault on the drug ring, Bobby finds himself caught in between and morally compelled to turn state’s evidence against the crime syndicate. And out of necessity he disappears into the witness protection program, dragging along his less than enthused honey of choice Amada (Eva Mendes), who’d rather still be partying hard back at the disco.
With more twists than the dancers on the floor of El Caribe, We Own The Night is a grim, meandering excursion through Brooklyn’s mean streets. The family friction aspect of the story comes off as far less gripping than the menacing mob stalking these conspiratorial siblings like a really creepy, seemingly invisible entity poised to strike with deadly force at any moment, witness protection or not.
Also in need of more personality and depth here is Eva Mendes, whose character seems to basically be around to feed her man’s erotic fantasies for some relaxation on his down time, or tag along sulking when he’s in hiding. Though injecting a welcome infusion of a little odd comic relief is Ed Koch, doing himself as the presiding mayor back in the day, and showing up at emergency rooms and funerals to gripe about cornering the bad guys. We Own the Night, by the way, was the rallying cry of the NYPD Street Crimes Unit back then under the former mayor turned cameo maven.
SONY Pictures Home Entertainment
2 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Audio Commentary: James Gray, Director; Featurettes: Police Action: Filming Cops, Cars, and Chaos; A Moment in Crime: Creating Late 80’s Brooklyn.