By Josh Moss
Brooklyn, N.Y., 1988. A man linked to Russian mobsters becomes an informant for the New York City Police Department, which employees his father and brother. It may not be The Departed, winner of last year’s best-picture Oscar, but We Own the Night — which opens Friday — is still one hell of a ride worth your money.
Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line) manages a happening nightclub, a place where patrons buy drugs, blow cocaine lines off
tables and get a bloody nose if they harass the topless women dancing on bars. The owner, who is also in the “fur business,” treats Bobby like a son and entertains Bobby’s proposal to open up a new joint in Manhattan.
Bobby’s real father is longtime Police Chief Burt Grusinsky (the legendary Robert Duvall), who’s busy giving a speech at a ceremony for his other son, Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg, The Departed), an officer being promoted to captain. Bobby shows up to the event with his girlfri/files/storyimages/Amada Juarez (the stunning Eva Mendes, Ghost Rider), but he’d rather be someplace else. For starters, he took on his deceased mother’s maiden name to prevent his customers from realizing that he is related to a couple of cops. Plus, there's marijuana he needs to toke.
Heading a narcotics team, Joseph discovers that Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov) is a major drug dealer and barges into his hangout…which is also Bobby’s club. There isn’t enough evidence to nab Nezhinski, but Bobby gets roughed up and winds up at the police station for “resisting arrest.” He’s soon released and brawling with Joseph, and the brothers decide they are “(expletive) done” with each other. But then a masked gunman fires a bullet through Joseph’s cheek, a failed assassination attempt that plants him in Jamaica Hospital for months. It becomes apparent that the Russian mafia is prepared to pick off the police force one by one and, realizing his father — like his brother — is in danger, Bobby becomes a mole, landing right into the underground drug world’s heart.
From writer-director James Gray (The Yards, also starring Wahlberg and Phoenix), We Own the Night is a dark tale. At times it seems the only light comes from a lit cigarette’s tip. The dialogue can be unoriginal — “It feels like these walls are closing in around me” — but Gray’s masterful camerawork more than makes up for it. Bobby enters a drug house with a hood over his head, for example, and the point of view on screen is through his eyes. A car chase sequence during a downpour is one of the most intense captured on film in recent memory. There’s also a shootout in which the only thing we hear is a high-pitched ringing, to simulate what’s going on inside Bobby’s head.
It’s creative stuff, only helped by a stellar cast. Wahlberg and Duvall are good here — hell, even Mendes briefly flashes some acting chops we never knew she had — but Phoenix’s character is the one worth savoring. Even when he’s silent, sitting across from the gangster who nearly killed his brother, Phoenix is a powerful presence.
We Own the Night looks at the importance of family, and it seems that over his short career Gray has already established his own little family. The director has only done three movies, and he worked with Wahlberg and Phoenix on one of them. Here’s hoping a third outing is in the works.