We Own the Night, with its top-drawer cast and sleek production, never distinguishes itself from the countless family-driven crime yarns of years past. It’s not to say that this is bad film; just one we’ve all seen before, repackaged nicely for a Fall release. Above all else, it’s a dour disappointment that more wasn’t done with the material – even the action scenes are lacking in excitement and the screenplay, by writer/director James Gray, rides a train of implausibility all the way to its mundane climax.
Joaquin Phoenix is Bobby, a high-rolling New York club owner who lives a free-wheelin’ lifestyle with his girlfriend, Amanda (Mendes). His club is riddled with illegal behavior, mainly in the form of drugs. A Russian dealer named Nezhinski (Veadov ) is a frequent patron of the club, and this has caught the attention of the New York Police Department, who consider Nezhinski a prominent public enemy. It just so happens that Bobby’s brother, Joe (Wahlberg), and father, Burt (Duvall), are both members of the NYPD and have asked for Bobby’s cooperation in tipping them off to Nezhinski’s whereabouts. On the other side, Nezhinski is asking for Bobby’s help in spreading the word about his cocaine ring. Loyalty stands in the balance, and the decision is not as simple as it seems.
While crisply acted, the film never pops off the screen. The story is familiar, yes, but the real problem is that Gray’s screenplay never rises to the level of engaging. Characters are established with minimal exposition and the audience is expected to care deeply when the inevitable takes place in overly dramatic fashion. Plausibility is also stretched thin, particularly in the third act. Are we honestly supposed to believe that a drug dealer as swift as Nezhinski would not find out that two of Bobby’s family members hold high positions at the NYPD prior to trusting him? This is sloppy research by an otherwise effective dealer. The finale, while expertly photographed, is ultimately anti-climactic.
Joaquin Phoenix carries the film from frame one and does so admirably. Phoenix is a very gifted actor and here he is given the opportunity to go from man-who-has-it-all to rogue cop. The gradual transition is pulled off quite well. Wahlberg and Duvall add plenty of class as supporting players, even as their characters fail to be fully fleshed out. Eva Mendes is given next to nothing to do, but nevertheless manages to overact during her big emotional showdown with Phoenix.
When films that have the caliber of talent that We Own the Night has, they always manage to be more damaging on the disappointment scale than their run-of-the-mill counterparts. Gray is a far better director than writer, and that’s what brings the film down several notches. A few more runs through the old typewriter might have cleaned up some of the rough edges, but it’s the utter familiarity that keeps We Own the Night from standing out on the screen in the same way it undoubtedly did at the pitch meeting.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 117 Minutes
Rating: R for strong violence, drug material, language, some sexual content and brief nudity.
Theatrical Release: May 25, 2007 (Cannes Film Festival) / October 12, 2007
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall, Alex Veadov, Dominic Colon