Tales of two brothers who split the affections of their father are as old as any story you’ll find onscreen or in books. If done right, this classic conflict can ring truer than any documentary or allegorical tale ever can. But if done wrong, as it is in James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” you walk away feeling frustrated, wondering how such a stellar cast and classic conflict can go so awry.
The aforementioned brothers here are good son Joe Grusinsky (Wahlberg) who has followed in his police chief father’s (Duvall) footsteps to become one of New York City’s finest. Bad boy son Bobby has chosen a much less rigid (and much more fun) path as he runs the hottest nightclub in Brooklyn, has a hot as hell girlfriend named Amada (Mendes) and has really stuck it to his old man by taking on his deceased mothers maiden name, Green. For reasons unknown, Bobby has kept it a secret that he comes from a family of cops. Well that’s not necessarily true. Bobby tells Amada he doesn’t want to seem like a narc or a wet blanket so it’s just better for business if people don’t know his family is full of coppers.
It also makes for an extremely lame and contrived plot point when brother Joe decides to make a drug bust on slimy Russian drug dealer Vadim (Veadov) in Bobby’s nightclub. I mean, come on here. If you’re one of the number one drug dealers in all of New York, no one will notice or research or find out that the dude fronting your number one drug spot is the son and brother of powerful cops? And this is just one of many, many plot holes so large that the leap required to suspend your disbelief would require a shark ramp and motorcycle bigger than the one used by the Fonz.
Yet what’s so utterly frustrating about “We Own the Night” is that Gray is no rookie director. In fact, he’s shown shades of excellence and this should be his big coming out party. While he certainly isn’t prolific with his work, his other two films “Little Odessa” and “The Yards” are fairly taut, dark and well constructed dramas pitting good against it’s ultimate enemy, evil. This latest film just unravels from about the twenty minute mark on and makes no attempt to recover. Rather, it becomes more cliché and ham fisted as it rolls along.
Speaking of frustrations stemming from this film, I need to mention some positives that are really kind of wasted. First off, Eva Mendes burns up the screen as a “from the block” kind of girl who soon finds her love for Bobby tested. Always a pretty face and body, Mendes gets to really act here and she shows herself as more than capable. While she sort of disappears late in the film, her presence onscreen is a welcome spark under the yawning performance by the films lead, Joaquin Phoenix. I generally like Phoenix, but here he looks on the verge of a really great nap. I counted about three different times I saw his head jerk up, as if caught dozing during lengthy, chatty scenes.
Also annoying is the waste of some innovative and outstanding use of the subjective point of view by Gray and cinematographer Harris Savides who has worked with David Fincher on “Zodiac” as well as on the recent Gus Van Sant “experimental” films “Gerry,” “Elephant” and “Last Days.” This is ironic because “We Own the Night” apparently takes place in 1988 but the only taste of a retro production design we get are some crappy eighties cop cars and the soundtrack. Savides filmed what I feel is one of the best period pieces in recent years in “Zodiac” so one wonders how he could sit by and not mention there’s no purpose for setting a film twenty years back if you make nary a visual reference to the era. Yet to his credit (and Gray’s) there’s a terrific car chase in the film which is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The sound and point of view are purely that of the driver and it makes it all the more exciting.
But one car chase and a smoking hot Eva Mendes can’t cover up the lack of a tight script, realistic character motivations or a sense of pacing that begs for the viewer to be involved. Rather than fitting into the classic category of two brothers at odds, “We Own the Night” falls into the category of the contrived and forgettable cop drama.