by Steve Habrat
The crime drama is a tough genre for a director and screenwriter to take a crack at. The genre is hopelessly enamored by loyalty, honor, and betrayal, all which have been done to death by this point. The last truly refreshing take on the genre was Martin Scorsese’s 2006 gangster epic The Departed, which was a beast of a picture that snagged Best Picture at the Oscars. The following year, director James Gray released We Own the Night, a period crime drama that tried to ride the wave of The Departed. Sadly, We Own the Night doesn’t make a tiny chip in The Departed but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have aspects that one can admire. Slower and tighter, We Own the Night never really becomes a white knuckler due to some clichés that are just unforgivable but this grimy tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law will actually manage to disturb you ever so slightly. The film also boasts a knockout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as nightclub manager Bobby Green, a shaky tough guy who wears the mask of cool like a professional. It is a haunted performance that isn’t easily shaken once you have walked away from We Own the Night and it single handedly makes the film worth your while. If you are not interested in Phoenix, see the film for its kick-in-the-head violence that actually manages to wipe away some of the glamour that Hollywood has attached to onscreen nastiness.
We Own the Night begins in November 1988, on the mean streets of New York City, where crime runs rampant. The law is nearly powerless as the criminals snicker at the police’s futile attempts to clean up the streets. It is in the thick of the crime that we meet Bobby Green (Played by Phoenix), a nightclub manager who enjoys doing blow in the company of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Played by Eva Mendes). Life is good for Bobby and the future promises to be even better but soon, his father, police Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Played by Robert Duvall) and his brother, Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Played by Mark Wahlberg), warn Bobby that the owner of Bobby’s club, Marat Buzhayev (Played by Moni Moshonov), may be involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. After someone close to Bobby is gunned down by a Russian hitman, Bobby decides to become an informant for the police even though he has worked hard to keep his family’s ties to the law a secret. This leads to the capture of Vadim Nezhinski (Played by Alex Veadov), the nephew of Buzhayev. Just when Bobby thinks everything is back to normal, Nezhinski escapes from jail and vows to find Bobby and kill him.
Much heavier on the drama than the thrills, We Own the Night may not please those who are hoping for tons of shoot-em-up action. Sure, there are a few action scenes to speak of, all of which are tense and in your face. A raid on a drug house has some of the most stomach churning violence you are ever likely to see in a mainstream Hollywood film. It is pretty vicious to say the least and I actually liked this aspect of the film. All I will say is that the raid features some truly nasty scenes of people getting shot in the head. Another scene finds Bobby and Amada caught in a terrifying car chase in a heavy downpour. I never thought that a Hollywood car chase would make the hair on my arm stand up but We Own the Night has changed that. It helps that there is absolutely no music to tell us how to feel. It is just gunshots, shattering glass, and screaming, all which fry your nerves relentlessly. It ended up being my favorite sequence in the entire film. The rest of the film is a slow burner, one that hits you with thorny family relations. It is about Bobby trying to mend his relationship with his firm father and his brother who thinks the world of their father. It is these scenes that resonated the most with me, even if I was reminded about other, better crime dramas that dealt with complicated family relations and tensions (I’m looking at your, Godfather).
While aspects of the script may not stand out, the performances cover up some of the familiarity within We Own the Night. Phoenix is the one who really brings his A-game and knocks it out of the park. You are drawn to him from the get go and he refuses to let you pull away. He is almost always silky smooth, even when he is higher than a kite while his father lectures him about his lifestyle. When he explodes into rage, take cover. While he isn’t a cold-blooded gangster, he sure as hell isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Wahlberg plays largely the same role that he did in The Departed but here he is a bit watered down. He is more family man than hothead with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Duvall is his usual tip-top self, another veteran of the organized crime genre. Here he plays the determined good guy who is a little past his prime. I sometimes think he saw the clumsiness in the script but he rolls with punches gracefully. Mendes is the one without real purpose as she just acts as the sex appeal while the boys all flex the masculine muscle. Then there are the two Russian bad guys who are your typical gangsters who make lots of threats. They won’t make much of an impression on you.
We Own the Night also has some gritty set design and wardrobe detail to really yank you out of the present. We Own the Night does find a nippy chill of unease slowly circling the edges of the action but it never engulfs the film fully. When this film is good, it is really, really good but when it is average, it is really, really average. The film is never flat out bad, but it just stinks of a paint-by-numbers approach. This causes the two-hour runtime to really drag its feet at points, which had me checking my watch one or two times. Still, I was mesmerized by how much dedication Phoenix pours into this project and I applaud him for it. He comes out on top and leaves even the veteran Duvall chewing on his dust. It leaves you wanting so much more from this guy! I really have a hard time understanding why every single crime drama that comes out wants to touch the sky. Only a small handful of them truly do while the rest come close but end up falling hard. With We Own the Night, Gray really tried to run with the big dogs but these mean streets belong to Scorsese and Coppola, two men who really know how to construct a crime drama. Gray is left just re-evaluating his approach to the genre and thinking of more ways to impress the ones who rule this genre with an iron fist.
We Own the Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When Marvel isn’t busy trying to force The Punisher on disinterested audiences, they are cramming Ghost Rider down our throats. This fiery badass on a bike just plays too nice in his disposable 2007 big screen debut, a film that only fans of the comic could love. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider is a run-of-the-mill superhero film with the a whole bunch of superhero clichés we have seen countless times in other, better superhero movies. It doesn’t help that the film has no staying power once you have walked away from it. The culprit for all the mediocrity is the fact that the script, penned by Johnson, has holes big enough to drive a tricked out motorcycle from Hell through. Johnson seems like he is eager to deliver for Ghost Rider fans and I applaud him for that, but it would have been nice if he cleaned up his story a bit and, oh, I don’t know, thought outside the box. It would have also helped if he had filled his film with actors who actually care about the material they are working with. The only one who seems like he wants to be there is Nicolas Cage but he has such little talent to speak of that he doesn’t really come up with anything that will save this clunker of a film from a slow, fiery death.
Ghost Rider begins with introducing us to a young stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Played by Matt Long) and his father, Barton Blaze (Played by Brett Cullen). Barton, it turns out, has terminal cancer, which he tries to hide from young Johnny but the secret finally slips out. Devastated, Johnny slips off to work on his motorcycle when he finds himself approached by Mephistopheles (Played by Peter Fonda), a mysterious man who asks Johnny to ride for him. He goes on to mention Barton’s illness and adds that he could help. Johnny accepts the help but he accidentally sells his soul to the mysterious man. The next day Barton wakes up refreshed and feeling better than ever, something that stuns Johnny. Later that day, Barton is getting ready to perform a new stunt for a huge crowd of fans but the stunt goes wrong and Barton is killed. At the exact moment Barton is killed, Johnny sees Mephistopheles standing by and laughing. After the accident, Johnny sets out on his own but he once again finds himself approached by the mysterious man who says that he will come back for Johnny’s services one day. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Johnny (Played by Nicolas Cage) now a big name stunt motorcyclist who is always cheating death. As Johnny enjoys his fame, a sinister force is walking among us in the form of Blackheart (Played by Wes Bentley), a deadly demon who is searching for a contract that could allow him to unleash hell on earth. In order to stop Blackheart, Mephistopheles calls upon Johnny and turns him into a fiery superhero called Ghost Rider.
Ghost Rider leans heavily on the almost nonstop action at its charred heart. Very rarely does the film actually calm down enough to give us an intimate character moment. Perhaps this is good because the action actually allows Ghost Rider to be watchable for its two-hour runtime. The CGI is very well done, especially the effects on Cage when he morphs into the hissing demon. Things do turn goofy when Fonda and Bentley see their faces distorting into bluish ghouls with row after row of crooked fangs. They would be a dentist’s worst nightmare but they wouldn’t scare anyone else. The action basically sees Ghost Rider stomping around on the screen and battling one of Blackheart’s three grinning henchmen, all of which are dispatched with ease. The sad part to all of this is that Cage and Bentley allow the special effects to do all the work for them. Bentley ends up being guiltier of this than Cage, if you can believe that. Bentley’s Blackheart has to be the least convincing baddie to ever torment a superhero. At times, he seems like someone is standing off screen holding up a white poster board with his lines written on it. He doesn’t bring any menace to the role and in the end, he falls behind voice distortion and layers of CGI to make him an intimidating force. Still, he just seems too nice.
Cage, meanwhile, had to be breathing a sigh of relief that for once, he wasn’t the one ruining the movie. I was actually surprised in the amount of enthusiasm that Cage demonstrated even if he is hit or miss. The performance finds him speaking in a southern drawl that appears and then disappears without warning, something that you would think Johnson would have righted. The rest of the time, Cage just seems to be playing a giddier version of himself. Apparently, Cage is a huge fan of Ghost Rider (he even has him tattooed on his arm) and he really lobbied to nab the role. You would think he would have brought something special to this demon party, being a huge fan and all. Ghost Rider finds Cage’s Johnny Blaze striking up a relationship with forgettable reporter Roxanne Simpson (Played by Eva Mendes), a romance that has absolutely no spark to speak of. Mendes seems to just be going through the motions, very aware that she is only here to be saved by Cage’s CGI alter ego. The great Sam Elliot steps in as the mysterious Caretaker who finds himself the target of Bentley’s Blackheart. Elliot does a fine job with what he has to work with, even if there are more than a few holes in his character. Donal Logue shows up as Blaze’s wisecracking partner, Mack, who gets stuck with the typical one-liners for the kids. Rounding out the main players is Fonda’s Mephistopheles, who seems delighted to be playing the creeping puppet master.
There are aspects of Ghost Rider that are never fully explained to us, with things happening for no reason at all. Cage can apparently manipulate anything he touches, making them look like they were ripped out of the Devil’s imagination. There was also a twist with the Caretaker that drove me absolutely nuts, especially since Blackheart brutally terrorizes him while he does nothing about it. Another problem I had with the film was Blackheart’s evil plot to destroy earth. He gets the upper hand on Ghost Rider because he has no soul, something that Ghost Rider can target and destroy. Blackheart’s master plan fills him with hundreds of hellish souls, all of which can be burned up by Ghost Rider (Didn’t anyone catch this error while writing the film?). The film desperately wants to be a western but it seems that the western didn’t want to be associated with this crap so it spit it back into action territory. Overall, with wiser casting choices and a fully developed script, Ghost Rider could have turned out to be one of the more fun Marvel movies. It could have been a darker alternative to Marvel’s usually family friendly heroes. Instead, it just feels like watered down excuse to sell toys to kids and act as a quick cash grab for the money-hungry Marvel. A throwaway superhero vehicle that feels like it has been done before, and much better at that.
Ghost Rider is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Sin City tried to be funny and refused to take any of its characters seriously. Don’t want to? Yeah, I don’t blame you. Director Frank Miller (Yes, the comic book writer) seems to not be able to shake the visual approach of his 2005 film Sin City (Remember, he co-directed Sin City with Robert Rodriguez) and carries the curious look over to The Spirit, an overly campy and convoluted superhero film based off the comic strip by Will Eisner. Miller so desperately wanted to film a moving comic strip that he pays absolutely no attention to the storyline or the characters and instead obsessively pours over the visual look of his film. The Spirit is a visual knockout, that I can say, but the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired. The storyline is monotonous and at times almost unintelligible and the hero is so dull that you may find yourself forgetting to root for him. Miller pits this square against the Octopus, a villain that goes through more wardrobe changes in this film than any pop singer at a concert. Stir in a handful of hot babes and you have an over seasoned recipe for disaster.
The Spirit takes us to Central City and introduces us to Denny Colt (Played by Gabriel Macht), an undead police officer who prowls the streets of the city as the Spirit, a masked crime fighter/detective. The Spirit receives a phone call one evening from Detective Sussman (Played by Dan Gerrity) about something strange going on down by an old shipwreck on the outskirts of Central City. The Spirit makes his way to the shipwreck where he bumps in to a femme fatale from his past, Sand Saref (Played by Eva Mendes), who is trying to make off with two mysterious crates. Saref is foiled by the Spirit’s arch nemesis the Octopus (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), a villain in one awful costume after another. After gunning down Sussman and forcing Saref to leave one of the crates behind, the Octopus claims it for himself and calls in his sidekick Silken Floss (Played by Scarlett Johansson) and his army of cloned henchmen (All played by Louis Lombardi). The Spirit confronts the Octopus and the two engage in a massive brawl that ends with the Octopus telling the Spirit that they share a connection. As the Spirit investigates Sand Saref’s reemergence in Central City and his mysterious connection to the Octopus, the Spirit discovers that the Octopus is on a quest for immortality, a quest that could threaten the entire city.
Shallow right from the beginning, Miller never allows us to really get to know Denny Colt, the man behind the fedora and mask. He sprints around rooftops in all black with a fluttering red tie as he explains to us in a voiceover that he is “in love with his city,” she always “provides” for him, and that his “city screams.” As the Spirit, Denny can take quite a bit of punishment because he is, well, a spirit. He spends most of the film outrunning an otherworldly Angel of Death called Lorelei (Played by Jaime King), who coaxes him into the afterlife where he belongs. All of this is supposed to count as character development throughout The Spirit but it is mostly there to lead to one trippy sequence after another. A scene where the Spirit drifts through an afterlife hallucination sure does radiate vision that would have looked marvelous in a comic book but just seems pointless on the big screen. In fact, almost everything in The Spirit is meaningless and silly, almost like Miller just smashed a bunch of images together that he thought would look great. This is even more apparent in the Octopus, who dressed up in one ridiculous costume after another as he paces around plotting how to kill the Spirit. He is just bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, no explanation required.
Then there is the humor and tongue and cheek antics that further make The Spirit the eye-rolling experience that it is. It tries to wink at us even thought it wants you to think that it is really cool. Take things seriously but not too seriously, says Miller! Miller blends together slang from the 1940’s with modern day technology in an effort to really give his universe some pizzazz but you are left wondering why he didn’t just stick to the 40’s all together. The performances by everyone involved seem a bit confused, diffident, or disinterested, no one daring to do the unthinkable and stand out. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been hard considering the lifeless script that Miller provides. The driest is without quest Macht as Denny Colt/The Spirit, who appears to be sleepwalking through the entire film. When he is pitted against Jackson’s Octopus, he practically disappears from the frame but not because Jackson is particularly good, just that he holds the screen better than Macht. Jackson, meanwhile, barks through dialogue like “toilets are always funny” as he smashes the Spirit over the head with a porcelain throne. He is more comical than sinister. The ladies are all there to be sexy, mostly Mendes who gets to shed her clothes in one scene and show off her backside, a scene just to drive fanboys wild. I hate to break it to Miller but this still does nothing to liven things up. Then there is Lombardi as the sea of cloned henchmen who are more irritating than funny like they are supposed to be.
It really became a chore to not nod off while watching The Spirit and I usually never have that problem. This film is like watching glowing white blood dry (trust me, there is glowing white blood in The Spirit). There is nothing in the way of remarkable action, no character worth giving a damn about, and a plot line that was so disjointed and confusing that I couldn’t get swept up in the story. Maybe if you zapped the dialogue out of the film and played a collection of songs over the images, it would make for one hell of a music video (it is just a suggestion). It is obvious that if Miller had a good script, he could make something that would really be a must-see but The Spirit is just not that film. I’d be interested to see if he ever returns to filmmaking but let’s hope he doesn’t write it. Sadly, it feels like Miller ripped off his own material and we are all left wishing that he would have made Sin City 2. Overall, if you insist on watching The Spirit, make sure you down an energy drink, munch on plenty of sugary candy, and maybe even have a pot of coffee on hand. You are going to need it if you are going to get through this dud. I guess the Spirit should have stuck to haunting the pages of comic books.
The Spirit is available on Blu-ray and DVD.