With "We Own the Night," writer-director James Gray makes his third foray into the territory he explored in his first feature, "Little Odessa" (1994): the world of Russian mobsters scratching out a place for themselves in the outer boroughs of New York. Clearly Gray himself is struggling to gain a toehold on the peaks where Martin Scorsese and Gray's boyhood hero Francis Ford Coppola have planted their flags. Although he doesn't seem to have the vision to join that select company, it's clear he could have made his new picture into a tidy and satisfying melodrama of the mob. Instead, he has presided over a ponderous mash-up of his favorite masterpieces. "We Own the Night" sets new standards in the fine art of unattributed appropriation, amounting to something that borders on cinematic plagiarism, almost breathtaking in its chutzpah. What's worse, it isn't a lick of fun.
Set in 1988, the movie focuses on Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), who manages a raucous, high-end (for Brooklyn) nightclub. Besotted by the prospect of making his mark one day in Manhattan (shades of "Saturday Night Fever"), he has turned his back on his roots by changing his last name (from Grusinsky to Green) and getting himself a Puerto Rican girlfriend (Eva Mendes) of whom his family disapproves. He turns a blind eye to the gangsters hanging out at the bar, but is resolved never, never, ever to get mixed up in the family business.
That business, it turns out, is police work. He's the black sheep son of police captain Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) and brother of a rising star in the force (Mark Wahlberg).
"The Godfather" asks if family solidarity can turn a college boy and war hero into a ruthless don. "Who Owns the Night" sets itself the clever task of turning all that on its head. Can a nogoodnik be lured to righteousness when mobsters take aim at his family?
This might have been a provocative take on the tragedies explored by Coppola. As in "The Godfather," the scourge that tears families and lives apart is narcotics trafficking, embodied here by the slimy, malevolent Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), who wants to make Bobby a partner and rub out all those, who like Bobby's brother, threaten his livelihood. By nature a moral amphibian with his eye on the big chance, Bobby must choose whose side he's on.
Maybe Gray is intimidated by the prospect of reconfiguring the mother of all crime movies and so sticks distressingly close to his source. Maybe he's trying his hand at something like subliminal advertising, hoping to trick us into thinking we're seeing something momentous.
However it may be, Gray borrows prodigiously, right down to his shot setups and even, if I am not mistaken, background noises from the soundtrack. One example will have to suffice. When Bobby agrees to wear a wire for the police, he receives it in a long, narrow basement, just like the one where Michael (Al Pacino) received a gun for his meeting with a drug lord. Moreover, the wire is hidden in a cigarette lighter, giving rise to a few close-ups quoting Michael's confrontation with hit men in the hospital sequence from "The Godfather."
These borrowings, to use a polite word, are so insistent and carried out at such a bizarrely minute level of detail that the jaw drops in astonishment. It's one thing to admire a great film and to build on its achievement. It's another to shuffle its frames as one would a deck of cards and hope for the best. So distracting is Gray's Coppolatry that we keep expecting the film's living link to "The Godfather," Robert Duvall, to murmur "They shot Sonny on the causeway."
The performances suggest that if Gray had occasionally taken his eye off his DVD collection, a tough, taut movie might have emerged. Phoenix, especially, holds our attention as he moves persuasively between (somewhat protracted) episodes of brooding and moments when his confusion issues in explosions of rage and grief.
For those who like such things, there is also a cracking good car chase. True, it combines elements of familiar car chases. But Gray tosses in a few wrinkles of his own, illustrating the difference between being influenced by a source and surrendering to it. Unfortunately for the audience, it's a difference Gray, in general, doesn't seem to get. (R) 117 min. S