We Own the Night Review

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 lineage—and 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 finest—like 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 loves—not to mention himself—in 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 Departed—in which he also played a cop—because 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 dramas—or 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 mediocrity—never terrible or stimulating.