We Own the Night (2007) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, drug material, language, and some sexual content and brief nudity
Running time: 121 min.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall, Danny Hoch, Alex Veadov, Antoni Corone
Cameo: Ed Koch
Director: James Gray
Screenplay: James Gray
Review published October 20, 2007
The creative forces behind The Yards, Mark Wahlberg (Shooter, The Departed), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Ladder 49) and writer-director James Gray reunite for another routine crime drama that benefits from star presence while losing momentum by being consummately routine. I fail to grasp just why the film has the title it does, or why it is set in the era it is, but I'm willing to plead ignorance to these things if it means enjoying an interesting film with fine performances and an engaging plot. Sadly, only the performances don't let me down.
The story takes place in 1988, when New York City is beginning to be overrun by by the criminal element, most notably in deadly thug Russians who have come over to take over the cocaine empire that is sweeping the neighborhoods. Against the kind of artillery and ruthlessness these new breed of criminals possess, the police find themselves completely stymied, becoming a veritable laughing stock to the men they are trying to bring down.
The Chief of Police is Burt Grusinsky (Duvall, Kicking & Screaming), who has two sons on opposite sides of the law -- police officer Joseph and seedy nightclub manager Bobby. Bobby just so happens to have a patron in his establishment frequently that the cops feel is set to be the next kingpin of crime, Russian gangster Vadim Nezhinski (Veadov), but Bobby declines the offer to get involved. The cops bust in anyway, taking some of Vadim's men on drug possession, but they'd rather kill themselves than talk out of fear of what could happen to their families. From then on, war is waged between the Russians and the police, leaving Bobby caught in the crossfire, having to confront his loyalty to the family that has all but disowned him and his Russian brothers who are out to snuff them out.
We Own the Night contains a few interesting moral arguments, mostly stemming between the allegiance to duty and family vs. the right to free will and fulfilling your own destiny. When dealing with some of the soul-searching qualities, Gray's film finds some ground to explore that suggests the kind of movie that upholds the virtues of law enforcement and the family unit in ways not often explored in typical Hollywood crime thrillers. The problem is that these moments are rather few in what might have worked better as a character study, as the story at its core is not particularly new or interesting, and plods along to a predictable beat to its ultimate conclusion that feels too long in coming.
Of course, while we can respect the difficulties of being a police officer trying to do what's right in a world that is full of such wrongs, as painted in the film, they are about as deserving of the "laughing stock" label as could be if this is typical police procedure. The Chief of Police has no clue a rogue undercover operation is going on under his very nose, while his civilian son is made an honorary cop without any formal training, and after exhibiting nothing but a penchant for borderline criminality himself. There is a scene in the film where they go to smoke out one of the bad guys, but Bobby gets fed up and goes in after him, all the while the cops yell at him not to go in there because it's too dangerous. Yeah it's dangerous because the cops just tipped off the bad guy, quite loudly, that one of theirs is going in!
Perhaps raving Joaquin Phoenix fans will enjoy this film more than most. Wahlberg gets about half the screen time in a role that barely requires anyone of significant talent. Eva Mendes's (Ghost Rider, Trust the Man) character looks to be set up as a potential backstabber, but the plotline never develops and her character is all but completely forgotten in the film's second half. The work smacks of redirections during the course of filming, so it wouldn't surprise me if Gray's intentions were detoured by studio meddling. In the end, it comes off too dull and standard to merit a recommendation, with the only interest in the proceedings coming from spotting the missed opportunities in Gray's script to explore the novel ethical questions that arise before he quickly ignores them for the next shootout.
©2007 Vince Leo