We Own the Night

It has Boston.

"Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent . . . ." T.S. Eliot's Prufrock

In 1988 the New York City police don't own the night, although patches on their jackets claim to do so. Russians are threatening to flood the city with untraceable drugs, and Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) must worry about the safety of his newly minted captain, son Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), and rebel bar manager son, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix). Family, mobs, sons?you got it: the Godfather it isn't; not even the recent Cronenberg Eastern Promises is it.

So what is it? We Own the Night is a noirish (it opens with a jazz trumpet accompanied montage of tough New York) shoot 'em up with barely a new idea about crime families and not so bad families, each with personnel and children problems. The luscious dame Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes) isn't even bad, much less a femme fatale.

After the blood and guts, the film has no guts to go deeply into characters to allow us the joy of seeing them change, for good or bad. Although Bobby gets vengeful, there's barely any dialogue about his own place in the hierarchy of bad guys who turn good and commit acts of revenge.

But it has Boston, showing up lately in The Departed and Mystic River, where both Eastwood and We Own the Night's James Gray capture the blue collar Dorchester well enough to make me want to go back to work at The University of Massachusetts to sail my little dinghy at lunch. My nostalgic flourish is indicative of the film itself: All the montages of Dorchester denizens can't give the feeling of local violence better than deeply vetting the lead characters. Otherwise, you're like me sailing at lunch time, detached from the grit and grandeur of the real Dorchester.

Gray and Eastwood have an affinity for Eliot's "lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows." Eastwood nails them; Gray sails by.