James Gray, the filmmaker behind We Own The Night, is not a man to be rushed. Six years divided his 1994 debut Little Odessa from its follow-up The Yards, while we’ve had to wait another seven for its successor. Clearly this is a man who likes to think long and hard before embarking on his next project... only to then make a film that’s pretty much indistinguishable from the one that preceded it.
There’s nothing wrong with the writer-director’s milieu of choice: the doom-laden, ’70s-style thriller, invariably involving families at war, ethical choices and criminal fraternities in New York’s outer boroughs. It’s just that when your points of reference are The Godfather, The French Connection and The Sopranos, it helps to have more up your sleeve than dutiful homage. You can’t quibble with the kind of fierce actor loyalty that compelled Yards stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg to reunite under Gray’s direction, but given they’re both playing characters superficially similar to their earlier roles, however, it’s hardly surprising déjà vu kicks in from the very first reel.
But, taken on its own merits, We Own The Night emerges as a solid, professional job with a keenly observed sense of time and place (the former 1988, the latter Brooklyn). Phoenix is Bobby Green, manager of a Russian-owned nightclub in Brighton Beach, who turns an astutely blind eye to the drug dealers operating out of his establishment. By changing his last name (Grusinsky), Bobby has successfully distanced himself from his hard-nosed cop brother Joseph (Wahlberg) and their father Burt (Robert Duvall), an NYPD stalwart who’s not so much a veteran as a legend. When a raid on his premises prompts a murder attempt on Joseph, though, Bobby is forced to pick sides – a dilemma which sees him going undercover to bring his employers to justice and into hiding when the sting goes awry.
Gray embellishes his formulaic potboiler with some colourful details: Bobby’s Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (a fetching Eva Mendes), a disco chick unprepared for where his moral makeover will take them; a car-chase shoot-’em-up in a torrent of (highly convincing) CGI rain; and an impressive climactic ambush that leads into a heavily symbolic confrontation in a field of burning grass. The dialogue crackles also, Wahlberg visibly relishing Joseph’s tough-talking philosophy (“Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six!”) and profanity-strewn argot. (After The Departed, does Marky Mark only pick parts that let him swear like a sailor?) Phoenix performs with his usual febrile intensity, even if it’s hard to swallow his readiness to surrender his hedonistic lifestyle. Duvall, meanwhile, does everything he’s supposed to without breaking a sweat, and enjoys some spiky dialogue, too.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take Gray another six long years to make his fourth picture. And if it does, that he at best looks a little further afield. New Jersey, perhaps?
The kind of movie you feel you've seen before when you're watching it for the first time, Gray's latest never once surprises. But it's intelligent and well-crafted enough to make you prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.