Thursday, April 3, 2008

We Own the Night -- Duty or Fun?

The New York City police wear a badge proclaiming, “We own the night.” And the night is when the drug deals occur, when violence takes place, when the lowlife come out from beneath the rocks. But the police are making a statement. And that’s more than this film. It has little in the way of a statement. It has a strong cast but does not really use them. The plot is pedestrian and mostly predictable.

Joaquin Phoenix is Bobby Green, manager of La Caribe, a night club in 1980s New York. It’s a trendy scene, packed with clubbers seeking drugs, drink and “fun.” As the movie opens, Bobby is having sex with his girlfriend (Eva Mendes), doing some recreational drugs, and moving through his club with the swagger that comes from authority and power.

In stark contrast to this hip scene, we meet Joe Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) and his dad, both policemen. Joe is being honored at a police party in a church hall filled with families and kids. The young and single hip folk are juxtaposed with the married. The pretty compare with the plain. The former are looking for fun, the latter have accepted their duty.

As Bobby and his girlfriend come to the police party, we learn he is actually Bobby Grusinsky, but does not want his employers or associates (drug dealers, etc) to know this police relationship. When Chief Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) honors his son, Joe, he says “I taught him to work hard.” First and foremost comes responsibility, duty.

We Own the Night pits the two brothers, on different sides of the law. Bobby wants nothing to do with Joe and the police. He values the loose life, the casual drug scene. He is not really a criminal, but he is very close to the line. His dad says to him, “At some point, you will have to choose sides – you are either with us or with the drug dealers.”

When a bust occurs at the club, he is brought in under arrest. He is asked to be an informant, since, coincidentally, he is the only person close enough to the major drug dealer. Yet he wants nothing to do with it. However, when Joe is shot in the head by a professional killer delivering a message to the police, Bobby agrees to inform, and proceeds to set up the major dealer. There are some twists and turns, but for the most part the plot is obvious. When he realizes his dad is targeted, Bobby chooses responsibility and joins the force to protect his dad.

We Own the Night looks like a fun, action movie but turns out to be more labor than it should be. Unwittingly true to its message, it is work first before play, and it feels longer than it is. It is realistic in its scenery, yet unrealistic in its characters. It is implausible that Bobby would so easily give up a life of immorality for a family he has spurned. And it is even more improbable that a professional killer would fail to execute a man he shoots in the head from a distance of 3 feet. And it us simply too neat that Bobby ends up valedictorian of his class.

Even the message is questionable. Yes, we are to choose to be responsible. Whoever we are in whatever life circumstance we find ourselves in, we should live and act responsibly. Yet, there is a pattern to work and rest, even from creation. Life is more than just duty. There is joy in the midst of life. Jesus said our joy can be complete (Jn. 15:11). Ethically, “it is good for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God” (Ecc. 6:19-20).

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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