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We Own the Night

Crime Drama Stumbles

We Own the Night, a 70s-style urban crime drama written and directed by James Gray, reunites Gray with actors Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, the co-leads in Gray’s last film, The Yards. Apparently strong believers in his talents as a filmmaker, Phoenix and Wahlberg also stepped in to co-produce We Own the Night. While the two actors give note perfect performances as estranged brothers, they’re let down by Gray’s overly familiar, formulaic screenplay.

Set in Brooklyn, New York (circa 1988), We Own the Night follows two brothers, Robert Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of the nightclub El Caribe, and Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), a decorated New York City police officer. Their father, Burt (Robert Duvall), also happens to be deputy commissioner. To dissociate himself from his father and brother, Robert uses his mother’s maiden name, and the elderly owner of the nightclub, Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov), treats Robert as a surrogate son. Robert also has a Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes), who, not coincidentally, catches the eye of Bujayev’s nephew, Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), a drug dealer who works out of El Caribe.

One night Joseph, the newly installed leader of an anti-narcotics task force, raids El Caribe hoping to catch Vadim selling drugs. He doesn’t succeed, but the police rough up Robert and haul him to jail for resisting. Angered by being humiliated in public, Vadim and his associates order a hit on Joseph while simultaneously inviting Robert into distributing and selling drugs. Vadim also reveals that Robert’s father will be targeted next.

With his brother and father’s lives in immediate danger, Robert is forced to choose between the lavish, hedonistic lifestyle he’s enjoyed as a nightclub manager and the literal “law and order” offered by his father and brother. Choose he does, but his choices have unintended consequences that force him and Amada to go into hiding.

As a filmmaker, James Gray obviously knows his film history. Paying homage to the gritty, realistic crime dramas released regularly during the 70s, starting with William Friedkin’s Oscar winning procedural, The French Connection. Friedkin’s celebration of an anti-heroic, hyper-masculine, rule-bending ethos became the blueprint for cop thrillers or crime dramas in the decade that followed (e.g. Serpico, The Seven-Ups, Prince of the City, Baretta, Hill Street Blues).

The French Connection, however, is also remembered for one of the most breathtaking car chases put on celluloid. Not surprisingly, Gray pays homage to Friedkin by staging a car chase in heavy rain that’s almost as impressive as the one found in The French Connection. In this and a few other scenes, Gray shows flashes of brilliance that are all the more frustrating for being too infrequent.

To be fair, Gray is nothing if not ambitious. Unfortunately, We Own the Night falls far short of Gray’s ambitions to craft a thematically rich, emotionally satisfying crime drama out of overly familiar genre material. We Own the Night celebrates police officers as working class heroes, but also reaffirms a simplistic view of law and morality that openly justifies state-sanctioned violence as a handy tool for ridding the city of hardcore criminals.

More often than not Gray stumbles story wise, relying heavily on a string of coincidences, contrivances, and revelations that fall far short of plausibility. Too often, he has characters that should know better disclose key bits of information that function primarily to push the story forward to the next plot point. Robert’s character arc, while mostly believable, turns a hard right turn into implausibility late in the film while Joseph gets marginalized for long periods of time (which may come as a surprise to Wahlberg’s fans, who expect to see him in a co-lead role here). With a more accomplished, polished screenplay, We Own the Night might have matched Gray’s lofty ambitions.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars


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