We Own the Night (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Loyalty. Betrayal. Violence. Family. Those are the crucial staples to be found in any crime drama worth viewing, and writer/director James Gray shoehorns them into his high wattage effort, We Own the Night. Despite a plot that occasionally creaks and groans under the weight of a few too many coincidences and contrivances, We Own the Night offers effective drama and enough suspense to ensure that audiences will stay put until the end credits roll. And, even though Joaquin Phoenix gives a less-than-stellar performance in the lead role, we're still interested to know where the character arc will take this ambiguous individual.

Lifestyle choices define the separation between brothers Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joseph (Mark Wahlberg). Joe has followed in the footsteps of his gruff father, Burt (Robert Duvall), and entered the New York City police force. Bobby, on the other hand, has turned his back on the family calling and now manages an upscale Brooklyn night club. His lifestyle is fast and furious, involving a sexy girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), and a lot of partying. However, the club is the haven of drug dealer Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), who has connections to the Russian Mob (a suddenly hot source of movie villains - see David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises) and things come to a head one night when a task force led by Joe conducts a raid. Shortly thereafter, Joe has been shot in the face and Bobby finds his loyalties torn.

As was true of his previous feature, The Yards (which also starred Phoenix and Wahlberg), Gray's story is riddled with holes and logical flaws. For example, it's tough to swallow that big-time, well-connected drug dealers don't do a background check on someone they're planning to show their operation to (such a check would have revealed Bobby's family connections to the police department). And are we supposed to believe that a single car can take out a small convoy of cops escorting a witness? Little things like this don't sink We Own the Night, but they make it hard to applaud the movie unreservedly.

What Gray does right is to develop the family dynamics between Bobby, Joseph, and Burt. The interpersonal relationships between these three holds the movie together and proves to be more interesting than the crime elements. By being the maverick, Bobby has all-but-turned his back on his family and, as a result, holds a basement spot in his father's thoughts and affections. The always-dutiful Joe, on the other hand, is the apple of Burt's eye while secretly being jealous of the freedom his brother enjoys. The falling-out that occurs is inevitable given the circumstances but couldn't come at a worse time. While there is a fair amount of tension during the final 20 minutes, events unfold in a relatively predictable manner (although the setting is at least unique). Ultimately, though, it's a lot more interesting watching Bobby trying to come to grips with his potential culpability in his brother's shooting than it is watching him chase down a bad guy in a corn field. While certain elements of the plot hearken back to the disappointing The Yards, the complexity of the characters and the ways in which they interact is more reminiscent of Gray's superior first movie, Little Odessa.

Despite a strong cast, We Own the Night doesn't boast any memorable performances. Joaquin Phoenix plays the role like he's perpetually drunk or high, frequently mumbling or slurring his lines. Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall are solid but not spectacular. Eva Mendes is sexy, especially during her introduction scene, but she's pretty much stuck in the thankless girlfriend part. There are times when it looks like she might be on the verge of breaking free of her scripted constraints, but it never quite happens. The screenplay isn't interested in the female characters. (Joe's wife is virtually invisible and Burt is a widower).

With a cast like this, one has a right to expect something amazing, so the fact that We Own the Night is merely "entertaining" might cause disappointment in some quarters. As cop/crime dramas go, this one offers little that's new but it takes the time to develop the characters and that's where its strengths lie. Remove this aspect, and all that would remain is a generic story about a mini-war between Russian mobsters and New York City cops, circa 1988. Credit Gray for at least giving us more meat than that to chew on.

We Own the Night (United States, 2007)

Director: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes, Tony Musante, Alex Veadov
Screenplay: James Gray
Cinematography: Joaquin Baca-Asay
Music: Wojciech Kilar
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1