We Own the Night Review
Joaquim Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, both great actors, both in their prime. Wahlberg's put in some pretty decent performances before hitting the bigtime with his scene-stealing role in Martin Scorsese's unoriginal remake The Departed, and Phoenix was top notch as the legendary Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Writer/Director James Gray, who gave us the underrated crime dramas Little Odessa (complete with Tim Roth on top form) and The Yards, which also starred Wahlberg and Phoenix, brings us this, only his third movie, another character-driven crime operetta about blood, loyalty and morality. With veteran Robert Duvall to offer some heavyweight support, could this movie possibly go wrong?
“It's better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”
Bobby and Joe are two brothers who have, through choices made in their lives, effectively ended up on opposite sides of the law. Bobby's a glamorous club manager, all black suits and crimson shirts, with a gorgeous girlfriend and a light pot habit. He means well but his dabbling in drugs looks like it can only go in one direction. Joe, on the other hand, has followed in his father's footsteps and become a cop, and happens to be heading up a new drug unit . The dad, Albert, loves both his sons, but can see where things are going - it's a train-wreck waiting to happen. And when his police family are threatened by some Russian mob associates, Bobby has to make the biggest decision of his life.
Although it kicks off in the style of Carlito's Way, all smoky, atmospheric clubs and cool characters, We Own the Night is a much darker, more moody piece, in the same vein as Gray's previous The Yards. It's all about characters and emotions, the story evolving in words and motions, merely peppered with action. That said, the set-pieces are absolutely astounding, really tense, dark and brutal, shocking in both their nature and execution. In fact, the two outstanding moments - the 'lighter' scene and the rainy car sequence - are amongst the best two scenes of that nature that I have seen in any recent movie, Gray truly pulling out all the stops to bring your heart-rate right up.
The acting is also great, with Joaquim Phoenix really showing some presence and charisma, putting in one of his weightiest performances so far. This is probably my favourite film of his and it is clear that this is all his baby. Whether waltzing around the club in the company of the alluring Eva Mendes, or dealing with shocking deaths right before his eyes, he is utterly convincing and captivating, standing his own against the likes of Robert Duvall. And Duvall himself? - damn - this seventy-seven year-old veteran is an absolute legend. He almost steals every single scene he is in and it astounds me that he is still pulling off career-high performances in movies like this and Open Range at his age. I can only hope legends DeNiro and Pacino eventually decide to follow in his footsteps.
Mark Wahlberg, who's top-billed alongside Phoenix, has quite a surprising role, and tough material to work with given what we've come to expect from him. Sure, he's still the sweat-shirt wearing good-guy but his character evolution takes some interesting turns. Mendes also gets kudos for being much more than just a glamorous ornament for Phoenix's character to float around with. These two have real chemistry and her decent, loyal and desperately sexy Amada is one of the more well-rounded characters that she has had the chance to play (in the wake of the likes of Stuck on You, Exit Wounds and Ghost Rider). We have some pretty great performances across the board.
There is a 'but' in all of this, however, and that is the fact that the final act turns things in a rather silly direction. This is a serious crime drama, both realistic and well thought-out, but the way in which they develop the conclusion is extremely contrived (and totally implausible) and not in-line with the rest of the material. It's a shame, because the ending would have been fine in another movie - perhaps one more like Young Guns - but here it just does not work, and ultimately it disappoints.
Still, it merely turns what could have been a great movie into what is still a very good movie. A solid and reasonably original story, a decent script, some excellent characters brought to life by some of the performances of these actors' careers, a great 80s soundtrack and some stylish direction, all mixed up together to create a superb, atmospheric crime drama. Ok, so this may not be everybody's cup of tea - you may leave the movie asking yourself why they ended things the way they did, but if you can overlook that and still see the good, this is a cut above your average cops/gangsters movie and certainly never less than entertaining.