We Own the Night

“We Own the Night” works quite well as a drama about two brothers trying to tackle their differences and discover the true meaning of family loyalty, but as a film about the war on New York City’s drug trade in the late 1980s, it’s simply too conventional to leave a long-lasting impression.

As the manager of a Russian-owned nightclub in Brooklyn, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) takes great pleasure in keeping his customers happy and fooling around with his faithful girlfriend Amanda (Eva Mendes). He also prefers to keep a safe distance from Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), a dangerous drug lord who operates out of the club.

When his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and his father Burt (Robert Duvall), both with the NYPD, ask him to infiltrate the drug scene in an attempt to bust Nezhinski, Bobby must challenge his loyalty. But after the Russians declare war on the cops and start carrying out harmful strikes against his family, the decision is an easy one to make.

The trailers may suggest otherwise, but “We Own the Night” is anything but a fast-paced action spectacle with continuous pursuits and overblown shoot-outs. On the contrary, the movie follows an overly conventional plot about the NYPD’s efforts to halt the escalation of the drug trade, and the many troubles they face in pursuit of the Russians.

For the most part the film sees its credibility challenged, as the Russians always seem to be a step ahead of the cops by anticipating their every move and making superfluous threats. Then all of a sudden the story takes a twist, and the good guys easily regain the upper hand. Surprises are scarce and it takes more than an hour for some suspense to kick in, although you should never expect a massive outbreak of implausible action.

The film does however, comprise two memorable sequences. One is a fascinating car chase during a sudden downpour in which Bobby tries to shake off a bunch of Russians. The other is a nail-biting chase through a cornfield. The movie as a whole benefits from stylish direction by James Gray, which despite the negative effects of the film’s plot holes, manages to sustain an intense atmosphere all throughout.

“We Own the Night” works substantially better as a character study about two brothers with opposite sides. When we first meet Bobby he doesn’t show much enthusiasm for his family, but once he witnesses the harm inflicted on them by the people he works with, he learns what it means to act responsibly. Here, the movie offers truthful dialogue and sincere emotions.

The cast earns the film some extra points. For Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall, the roles of police officers are plain routine, and they pretty much dominate every scene they’re in. That’s unless they are joined by Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers the most honest performance of all. Eva Mendes does well in playing Bobby’s devoted girlfriend, but the fact that she changes hairstyles in every single scene, is rather annoying.

“We Own the Night” marks the third film for writer-director James Gray, whose previous films “Little Odessa” and “The Yards” followed a similar thematic and were also set around Queens, where Gray spent most of his childhood. “Night” certainly can’t live up to the brilliance of similar hits such as Scorsese’s “The Departed,” but it comprises enough assets that make it a watchable drama and certainly the best among this weekend’s major releases.

Review by Franck Tabouring