by Scott Mantz
“We Own the Night”
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes
Directed by: James Gray
“We Own the Night” doesn’t bring anything new to the table where big city crime dramas are concerned, but that’s probably the best thing about it. Deftly written and directed by James Gray, the gripping, entertaining, rock-solid mob thriller feels like a throwback to a bygone era, when directors like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet were at the top of their game.
Then again, seeing as how Scorsese is still in fine form after winning an Oscar for “The Departed,” that makes the arrival of the similarly-themed “We Own the Night” about a year too late. But Gray’s movie still stands on its own, thanks to a refreshingly straightforward approach to storytelling, scenes of genuine intensity and a dynamic performance from Joaquin Phoenix in his first showy role since playing Johnny Cash in 2005’s “Walk the Line.”
The year is 1988, and Phoenix plays Bobby Green, a Brooklyn nightclub manager who works for a dangerous Russian crime syndicate. Bobby and his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) are on top of the world, but it wouldn’t be that way if his employers knew the truth: that his brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) were NYPD cops hell-bent on bringing down the whole operation. When a tragic twist of fate forces Bobby to choose sides, his loyalties are torn between the one family that can save him and the other that can destroy him.
Though “We Own the Night” is James Gray’s most accomplished work yet, it still covers the same territory that he explored in his first two movies – 1994’s “Little Odessa” and 2000’s “The Yards” (the latter of which also co-starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg). And since all three are New York-based dramas that test the relationships between family members on opposite ends of the law, it’s almost like Gray keeps making the same movie over and over again (much like director Guy Ritchie does with his London-set mob thrillers).
But at least he’s getting better at it, since “We Own the Night” – which takes its title from the NYPD street crimes unit back in the 80s – brings more to the table. It’s a good movie with some great moments, particularly one in which Bobby goes undercover to shut down a seedy cocaine manufacturing house. And not only do Phoenix, Wahlberg, Robert Duvall and Eva Mendes give excellent performances, but it’s also interesting to see another side of the Russian mafia depicted so soon after director David Cronenberg’s terrific “Eastern Promises.”
Where’s Gray’s directing chops are proven, his work on the somewhat contrived screenplay could have used a little fine-tuning. We never really get to know why Bobby turned his back on his law-abiding family, and it seems a little far-fetched that his secrets would stay buried long enough for him to rise through the ranks of the mob. But these are minor complaints, since “We Own the Night” ultimately fits the bill as a riveting, engaging, well-acted crime story that should make filmmakers like Scorsese, Friedkin and Lumet very proud.
VERDICT: SEE IT!