We Own the Night
Writer/director James Gray's We Own the Night has about four or five great movies rattling around inside it, and if had he made just one of them it could've landed a knockout punch. As is, this New York crime drama/thriller feels too restless as it darts through organized crime, intergenerational conflict, sibling rivalry, and one man's redemption, leaving its competent cast and Gray's confident action staging feeling rudderless and clichéd.
Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) manages El Caribe, Brooklyn's hottest nightclub in 1988, much to the dismay of his Queens cop family--precinct brass dad Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) and hard-core brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg). Bobby, his girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes), and his buddy Louis Falsetti (Danny Hoch) know how to maintain a cool party vibe, while the older Russian family-man furrier who owns the club, Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov), treats Bobby like a son. Bobby feels so alienated from his own family that he uses his late mother's maiden name, Green, rather than his Grusinsky namesake. But when Joe's bust of El Caribe trying to pinch Russian drug dealer Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov) incites the mobster to hit Joe back right in front of his Queens home, Bobby considers turning informant to gain entry into Vadim's confidence, sparking a protracted cat-and-mouse game between the Russians and the police.
Gray proved an adept crime weaver in Little Odessa and The Yards, but here you sense an ambition trying to cut through genre. The opening credits marry romantic jazz to stock black-and-white photos of NYPD's Street Crime Unit to establish a bygone mood: the title itself appears as an embroidered epithet on this unit's sleeve patch. The credits cut right to the movie's version of decadence--Bobby and Amada making out backstage at El Caribe--and such abrupt shifts continue throughout.
It's as if Night can't decide if it's aiming for Sidney Lumet's anxious realism or Spike Lee's stylized evocations of time and place: Vadim takes Bobby to his drug warehouse and Gray shoots the scene in stomach-knotting silences, while certain party scenes move in a low-light lingering slow motion to accentuate every one of Mendes' curves. These tonal shifts feel too mannered, and the few moments that do succeed--such as a borderline brilliant car chase/shoot out in visibility-limiting rain--only accentuate how listless the less confident sequences are.
Other odd choices--a soundtrack of Blondie, the Clash, and the Specials that sounds nearly 10 years off 1988, and El Caribe itself feels modeled on the big discos of an earlier era, too--contribute to the movie's overall clumsiness. Phoenix, Duvall, and especially Hoch make the best with what they're given--both Wahlberg and Mendes are walking props--but We Own the Night never adds up to more than the haphazard sum of ill-fitting parts.