Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) runs a hot nightclub in go-go late '80s Brooklyn; Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) is with the NYPD, working hard to stop the Russian Mafia from flooding the streets with drugs. The two men have nothing in common -- aside from the fact that they're brothers. Writer-director James Gray's We Own the Night takes its title from a slogan the NYPD used in the late '80s to publicize and puff up their anti-drug efforts; the film's partially a family drama, as Bobby and Joseph and their dad, Deputy Chief Bert (Robert Duvall) come to terms with how they connect to each other; its also a run-and-gun action film, as the Russian Mob comes after the Grusinskys and Bobby has to step up to the fight.
James Gray's been working the mean streets since his 1994 debut, Little Odessa; after his prior film with Phoenix and Wahlberg, The Yards, in 2000, Gray hasn't made a movie in seven years. There was a mild bidding war surrounding We Own the Night prior to it's screening as part of the competition slate at Cannes -- Columbia picked it up -- and if anything made paying 11.5 million for the movie seem like a good bet, it has to be the marquee appeal of the big-name cast. And Phoenix and Wahlberg are very good in the film, portraying very different men going through very different transformations. Bobby has a hot girlfriend (Eva Mendes), a cool job and grown-up fun every weekend with booze and drugs and late nights and laughs; when the crooks come gunning for his family, though, fun time is over. Joseph is hard-bitten and full of swagger, but after he's ambushed and very nearly killed, his swaggering cockiness turns inward, darker, more complex.
Gray and cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay capture the gritty nights of '80s New York, and even the daytime scenes have a film of grime over them; there's some excellent camera work in the film, ranging from a hair's breadth escape Bobby makes in the desperate heat of the moment to a car chase action sequence set in a summertime downpour; the film looks coherent, cohesive, distinctive. The story doesn't feel that way, though -- We Own the Night seems a little torn: Is it a family drama or an action film, a showcase for performances or a knuckle-clenching exercise in tension?
If anything makes We Own the Night worth watching, it's Phoenix and Wahlberg. Both men have a knack for conveying the essential paradox of action - there are some things so brave you have to be terrified to do them -- and they also throw themselves wholeheartedly into the feuds and fights of their fractured family. Mendes is fine as Bobby's girlfriend Amada, and Duvall has the right kind of flinty solidity as Bert -- he may be a cop, but he's also a man. We Own the Night may feel curiously at odds with itself, but that doesn't necessarily make it a bad movie; if Gray's movie excels at one thing, it's how it takes the title phrase and makes a boast into something like a curse. Bobby and Joseph both own the night in different ways at the start of Gray's story of good men in a bad world; as the film goes all the way to the gutter to the grave, we see exactly what that costs.