“We Own the Night” is an exceptionally conventional crime drama about Brooklyn brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of the law circa 1988. Adequately acted and flecked with the required quota of action to satisfy genre fans, pic recalls numerous good police dramas of the 1970s, but mostly in superficial ways that bring nothing new to the table. Acquired by Sony for North American release shortly before its world preem in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, meller should ride its good cast and crime slant to reasonable B.O. returns.
Director-writer James Gray enjoys a following on the fest circuit due to his previous two Gotham-set crimers, “Little Odessa” and “The Yards,” which scored in Venice and Cannes, respectively, but underperformed commercially. His first film in seven years, “We Own the Night” again puts Russian gangsters at the center of things, although this time up against Brooklyn cops, in particular a Polish-American family so traditionally conceived that they would have been right at home in an MGM film of 1936.
Yarn pivots on the troubled relationship between Joseph and Bobby, Brooklyn brothers now in their 30s. At the outset, they’ve seen little of one another in ages, as Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) followed in the footsteps of his father (Robert Duvall) to become a cop, while Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) has become a successful, coked-up nightclub manager so anxious to distance himself from his straight-arrow family he’s even changed his last name.
No one Bobby works with knows he’s from a police family, least of all his boss, genial old Russian Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov), whose sinister nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) is well on his way to becoming Gotham’s biggest drug dealer. The dramatic vice tightens when Vadim, an unsavory regular at the El Caribe club, suggests Bobby join him in his narcotics business just as the Brooklyn cops announce they’re going to get tough on drugs and Joseph asks Bobby to be an informer.
When Joseph leads a raid on El Caribe, Bobby and Vadim are both arrested. But no sooner is Vadim released for lack of evidence than he tracks down the earnest cop in front of his house and shoots him, execution style. Joseph miraculously survives, while Bobby sees the light and nervously agrees to infiltrate Vadim’s operation as an undercover man. Several turns for the worse afflict the bumbling, old-style police, who are regarded contemptuously by Vadim, before they remotely begin to turn the tables. And it’s a given that family life on both sides will never be the same when all is said and done.
Simply because of the setup, with its elemental emotions, family bonds and conflicts, and stark good guy-bad guy delineations, the story pulls the viewer in. Gray also creates two or three effective set pieces, notably a scary car chase in a torrential (and computer-generated) downpour, that are undeniably arresting. After that, reactions to the film will depend greatly upon one’s degree of personal tolerance for dramatic implausibilities, plot loopholes, emotional cliches and period anachronisms.
To begin with the latter, viewers familiar with Brooklyn in the late ’80s will know that a giant, glitzy disco along the lines of the film’s El Caribe (clearly patterned upon Manhattan’s Limelight) never existed there at the time; Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” played at the outset, is a song one would choose to position one’s film in 1978, not a decade later; clothing and geographic details are off, and even a famous commercial overheard on a car radio is from the incorrect period. When small things like these, which will not bother young or unalert viewers, are wrong, one loses confidence in the authority being exercised over larger issues.
And with good reason. As the story motors along, the puzzling gaffes and unacceptable contrivances accumulate to an extent that becomes far too great to swallow or ignore. A villain miraculously eludes a police vice not just once but twice; police don’t augment their level of self-protection despite knowing they’re marked men; Bobby absents himself from his club job for an inordinate period, seemingly without raising the suspicions of his boss or associates; and one character acts rashly during the dramatic climax, entering a burning field of tall grasses when it seems not only unnecessary but inadvisable except for the striking visual opportunities that doing so will provide.
Performances are solid but unsurprising. Phoenix frets and sweats as his character becomes increasingly squeezed, Wahlberg is not as lively or dimensional as he was in either “The Departed” or “Shooter,” and Duvall can do this sort of crusty old cop in his sleep. As Bobby’s squeeze, Eva Mendes convincingly plays the slide of an enthusiastic party girl’s feelings as her mate drags her into aggravating jeopardy and isolation. Veadov is understated venality itself as the aspiring king of New York. Twenty years on, former mayor Ed Koch amusingly appears as himself.
Ultimately, “We Own the Night” plays like little more than an OK television movie, which is hardly enough after years of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.”