Bobby Green has turned his back on the family business. The popular manager of El Caribe, the legendary Russian-owned nightclub in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, he has changed his last name and concealed his connection to a long line of distinguished New York cops. For Bobby, every night is a party, as he greets friends and customers or dances with his beautiful Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada, in a haze of cigarette smoke and disco music. But it's 1988, and New York City's drug trade is escalating. Bobby tries to keep a friendly distance from the Russian gangster who is operating out of the nightclub--a gangster who is being targeted by his brother, Joseph, an up-and-coming NYPD officer, and his father, Burt, the legendary deputy chief of police.
Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) is living the good life with his sexy girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes), slightly on the edge, where the line between legal and illegal is blurred. Already successfully managing one popular club, the owner, a man who is like a father to him, offers him the chance to help build and manage another, and Bobby has lots of ideas on how he'd like the place to be. Life couldn't get any better.
Except for with his family. With a dad (Robert Duvall) who's the chief of police, and his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) who just made captain, Bobby's family life is tense at best. Having changed his name to keep both his personal and professional life separate, Bobby feels the strain of trying to straddle that line, and doesn't really know why he bothers. When the two cops tell him about the recent aggressive and violent activity of a Russian druglord, Bobby is reluctant to get involved. And when his club is raided by the police and he's arrested, it drives a wedge even further between both sides.
Until a family member is shot. Feeling angry and helpless, Bobby realizes he has access to a world that he never wanted to get involved with, but may help bring justice to his family. When the Russians offer an invitation to Bobby inside their operation, he's understandably scared. After all, they don't mess around if they think there's a threat, and they think the cops are a joke. But driven by a deep-seeded family loyalty, Bobby goes in and tries to infiltrate their secret plans, but things go awry and soon Bobby is fleeing for his life.
There is just something about Joaquin Phoenix. Every once in awhile, I see glimpses of the little boy he was in "Space Camp" and no matter how bad his character is, there's that tiny glimpse of vulnerability that makes whatever character he plays seem that much more real. In this movie, he's not really a bad guy, just someone who likes to party, hang out with his girlfriend, and do a job he actually loves doing instead of living the way his family expects him to live. Not so unusual. And despite everything, Bobby is loyal to his family, even if they are not all that close. Going through some tragedy changes his priorities on how he wants to live his life, and that means making sacrifices and giving up his old life in order to make peace with the new one.
In other news, Mark Wahlberg's part was rather understated as the good brother who follows in his father's footsteps. I loved Mark in "The Shooter" (never did do my review on that one) and "Invincible", even "The Departed", but here he was definitely underused throughout most of the movie. I think it shows his security and confidence in himself as an actor to sit back and let Joaquin take center stage here, and you can sense that the bond they share is genuine - they make believable brothers.
One thing that continues to frustrate me though, in these kinds of movies, is the role of "the girlfriend" or "the wife". Amada starts out kinda strong; her and Bobby are very close, they tell each other they love each other, he spends a lot of time with her and seems to include her in on any important events or decisions in his life, but then as things get heavy with the club and the shooting, all of a sudden she becomes wallpaper, and whiny wallpaper at that. At that point, I have to wonder why there is even a part for her because it certainly doesn't do much other than show that Bobby has a softer, romantic side, a version of his own family. Part of the problem is that Bobby stops confiding in her, keeps pushing her away, and you can't really blame her for resisting. It's just too bad it wasn't a stronger role, one that would portray the character in a strong, positive way. Wouldn't it have been an interesting film if Amada was the whole in Bobby's place? Now that's a movie I think I'd like to see.
Overall, I liked the film. It wasn't as emotionally heart-wrenching as, say, "Ladder 49" or as violent as "The Departed", but it was still enjoyable if rather predictable. I haven't seen many JP movies, but those I have seen have not disappointed, and I'd have to say the same for this one, though it may be one of his more unforgettable roles. The guy has quite an interesting body of work, so maybe it's not fair to think every movie is going to be that good. It's still better than some other actor's best work, so that's gotta count for something.
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****