We Own the Night
Flanked thematically by last year's Best Picture winner (The Departed) and maybe this year's (American Gangster), We Own the Night would be small-fry even if it wasn't just a decent cops-and-the-city drama.
It's 1988 Brooklyn, and the rampant underground violence is about to come to the surface and strike one family especially hard: the Grusinskys. We Own the Night opens with a shot of the black-sheep Grusinsky, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix)who has changed his last name to Green to hide his lineageand his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), in a private room and a very private embrace. When Bobby exits the room and enters the nightclub he manages, it seems as though he owns the night; the phrase, however, was coined by NYPD's finestlike Bobby's brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), and deputy-chief dad, Burt (Robert Duvall). The law-enforcing Grusinskys clearly don't get along with Bobby, who spurned the family tradition of police duty for the fast life, but that all changes with the firing of a gun. While standing just outside his apartment, Joseph gets shot and nearly killed in a drive-by, and the shooters are related to the owner of Bobby's nightclub. Suddenly, Bobby feels guilty by association, and not long thereafter he is ready to switch teams for the sake of his family. But partnering up with the cops means ratting out his former allies, and it's a move that puts everybody he lovesnot to mention himselfin the direct line of fire.
There are definitely great actors in We Own the Night but of the slightly underperforming variety. Phoenix has established himself as the consummate actor's actor of his generation, and he's certainly more than able-bodied as Bobby, the emotionally and physically battered centerpiece of the story. But it's far from his best work, like his point-of-no-return transformation we saw in Walk the Line or we'll see shortly in his Oscar-baiting Reservation Road role. His middling performance, however, is most other actors' career peak, so, yes, Phoenix is still very much watchable. Wahlberg makes this role look like one he accepted prior to the fervor (and Oscar nod) that followed The Departedin which he also played a copbecause he's not on screen all that much, and when he is, his trademark testosterone injection is noticeably absent. The movie's resident living legend, Duvall, is effectively curt as a hardworking, proud Brooklyn cop/father. But when the role calls for some physicality, well, let's just say the aging actor would've benefited from more stuntmen and aerial shots. And Mendes, the only actress with a real part in the movie, will be blogged-about much more for her opening nude scene (which appears, tragically, to involve a breast double) than her secondary role.
In many ways, We Own the Night is a lite version of our favorite urban cop dramasor maybe it's just that writer-director James Gray is a Martin Scorsese lite. More specifically, Gray's movie seems to yearn for The Departed-like heights. To Gray's credit, his story is not totally dissimilar to that of Scorsese's Oscar winner, and the action is intoxicating. But his homegrown tale, which reunites his leads (Phoenix and Wahlberg) and NYC melodrama from 2000's The Yards, has nothing on Scorsese's heart-pounding Departed buildup, and there's just one major scene of action of which to speak. Perhaps uncoincidentally, it's also the only time Gray displays true originality: On a rainy highway, Phoenix's Bobby is chasing the bad guys in his car as they chase his dad in their car, with the windshield wipers pulsating in accordance with the action. It's great, breakneck fun; it's the only real fun. Aside from that scene, Gray's efforts fall into a vast pile of nondescript mediocritynever terrible or stimulating.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.