"We Own the Night," starring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, is set in 1988 in pre-Giuliani New York City, when crime was pandemic and the Russian mob was moving in on the Mafia. There's almost a wistfulness to the approach of writer-director James Gray, as if he was saying, "New York may be cleaner now, but back then the movie material was much better."
Gray is primarily interested in a New York City of the mind. His movie is a caldron of melodramatic tropes from other movies about the riven families of cops and criminals, and yet, for the most part, he has enough flair as a director to make this derivative world his own.
Wahlberg plays Joseph Grusinky, a decorated cop whose father, Burt (Robert Duvall), is the city's deputy police chief. Joseph's brother, Bobby (Phoenix), is the family outcast. While Joseph and Burt are leading the charge to take back the streets, Bobby, who hides his family ties from his friends and business associates, manages a Russian-owned nightclub in Brooklyn that also serves as unofficial headquarters for the cops' number one-targeted drug kingpin, Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov). Bobby doesn't want any part of police- work and turns down their request to help. "You want me to inform?" he asks, as if he were being asked to foul himself.
Gray, who previously made the impressive "Little Odessa" and "The Yards," has a sinuous camera style that pulls us into the brackish allure of the underworld. Bobby's nightclub is a vast, multitiered emporium that he navigates, often high on dope, with delirious aplomb. He is also high on his sultry girlfriend, Amanda (Eva Mendes), who acts as hostess in the club.
Bobby is clearly headed for a fall, and just in case we didn't get it, Gray keeps pumping up the Greek chorus. When Joseph and then Burt and finally Bobby are targeted by the Russians, for instance, Amanda helpfully lets it be known that "the walls are closing in."
Bobby fulfills his destiny as a hero, and even though he seems temperamentally ill-fitted for the role, he has no choice in the matter. It's fate – I mean, Fate. But Gray leaves a lot of questions hanging. How, for example, is Bobby able to keep secret from the mob the fact that his father and brother are top cops? He is, not after all, very discreet – Amanda already knows – and the Russians aren't stupid. And yet the entire plot turns on this secret.
Gray also is careful not to weigh down Bobby's heroic ascent with too many negatives. Although he uses drugs recreationally, Bobby is no dealer and keeps his hands clean, which, given his world and his position, is not very believable. He is also catastrophically naive in his choice of professional alliances – even an 8-year-old would able to spot the cracks in the "kindly" Russian club owner.
And yet, when Phoenix is flying high, his performance is enough to make you believe in this man. And Duvall, in what must be the eight-hundredth terrific performance of his career, gives Burt a dignity that never stultifies into sainthood. Gray loves actors, and it shows.
He also loves the sheer release of physical movement, and this serves him best in a rain-slicked highway car chase near the end with the Russians in pursuit of Bobby and his father. The scene is shot almost entirely from Bobby's perspective, and the metronomic sound of his windshield wipers is like a death knell.
It's awfully difficult at this point in film history to come up with a car chase that's startlingly new, but Gray pulls it off. It's the best of its kind since "The French Connection." Grade: B+
Rated R for strong violence, drug material, sexual content, and brief nudity.