Set in 1988, this New York police drama feels like it was crafted in the style of American filmmaking popular a decade earlier. And after only a few minutes into the film, we begin to realize that We Own the Night is precisely the type of film that actors like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro would have gravitated to in the 1970s.
Filmed with a gun metal color palette with moody interiors, dark grays, blues and blacks and dim lighting—this Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Mean Streets hybrid takes a little while to get going but soon gets our hearts racing in some bravura sequences, most notably one that's on par with The French Connection as we're thrust into a car chase under New York City bridges.
Reuniting with actors Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg whom writer/director James Gray had worked with on The Yards a few years earlier, We Own the Night tells the story of the men of the Grusinsky family who are on both sides of the law.
Father Robert Duvall is the highly regarded Deputy Chief Burt Grusinsky, who, as the film begins states how proud he is to have his son, the lieutenant and family man Joseph (Wahlberg) following in his footsteps and also heading up the drug task force to combat the new far deadlier influx of drugs that has turned New York City into a war zone.
Brother Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) has hidden his ties to the police by taking his mother’s maiden name in his role as club manager for El Caribe, living the life of blissful and irresponsible hedonism with beautiful Eva Mendes, card games, booze and drugs until he learns from his family that the Russian mob may be running drugs out of his Brooklyn club.
When his brother Joseph is shot and left for dead, Bobby realizes that he can’t ignore his family loyalty any longer and tries to get involved in the dangerous situation.
Thrilling filmmaking benefits from the credible performances of the leads and top-notch execution (the previews alone made it look like The Departed 2) but it gets slightly derailed in a final act that feels inauthentic and actually had some audience members in the theatre I saw the picture in walking out in disbelief after having been so engrossed for the first eighty minutes.
After some research and consultation, I learned that what happens in the film could actually happen in the world of law enforcement, however it is a bit unlikely and Gray’s sudden twist feels forced. Still, the whole film can’t be penalized for its finale and police and crime film fans will not be disappointed in Gray’s film which was nominated for the 2007 Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Director James Gray