Movie Review: We Own the Night

By Matthew Huntley

October 28, 2007

You're wrong! This movie is *not* a cheap ripoff of The Departed!

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As a police drama, We own The Night is derivative of better movies like Serpico, L.A. Confidential and The Departed. It's safe and familiar, with a plot that centers around a group of cops (in this case a family) all aiming to take down one bad guy. No doubt we've seen this material before.

But despite it not being wholly original (The Departed wasn't either), the movie still manages to be exciting, thanks mostly to its strong performances and pulsating action. The plot may be by-the-numbers, but the execution of the story is genuinely effective and pays off well.

Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg star as Bobby and Joseph Grusinsky, two brothers who thrive in their respective positions on opposite sides of the law. Bobby manages a successful club in Brooklyn called El Caribe and Joseph has just been promoted to police captain under their father (Robert Duvall).

Bobby's club is owned by a Russian fur salesman and frequented by drug dealers. Bobby himself is a drug user but stays away from dealing. He loves what he does and has ambitions to open another club in Manhattan.

At the banquet where Joseph celebrates his promotion, he and his father take Bobby aside and ask him to be an informer at the El Caribe so they can nail a Russian drug dealer named Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov). Bobby wants no part of it and tells Joseph, "I've got my own problems."

But Joseph moves in on him anyway and places Vadim and Bobby under arrest. It's lucky for Bobby he's assumed the last name Green so criminals won't link him to a family of cops.

The incident prompts Bobby and Joesph to fight and exchange hurtful words. Some of their aggression obviously stems from their father favoring Joseph over Bobby, and the movie can't avoid giving us a classic case of sibling rivalry, but at least we understand why. Bobby seems like he's up to no good, but he's arguably good at what he does. It's not that he's without ambition, just common sense.


At this point, instead of giving away what the trailer does not, let me say that something tragic happens. Whatever that may be, it urges Bobby to play ball with the cops and wear a wire so he can help bring down Nezhinski. He's sort of successful but he ultimately ends up building more trouble for himself, as well as to his family and girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes).

The first half of "We Own The Night" is the best. It possesses a momentum that keeps it moving and a patience that allow the characters to grow beyond archetypes. There's more to Bobby and Joseph than just their jobs, and the two leads, especially Phoenix, reveal a greater complexity than we initially thought they had. Mendes is also convincing as Bobby's girlfriend. She and Phoenix make us believe they really are a couple in love.

But as the movie segues into its second act, it begins to slow down. The plot more or less unfolds the way we expect it to, with no surprises or shocks. It could have just as easily been a made-for-television drama or episode of "NYPD Blue." As the usual events transpire, some characters die; some leave town; and some reveal themselves to be bad guys.

Still, with that said, the movie is good at what it is. Director James Gray brings a fresh style to the material that keeps us engrossed in how things happen, even though we already know what will happen. There's a chase scene, for instance, that takes place in the pouring rain and the point of view of the car made me uncommonly excited and nervous. It provides a rush that most chase scenes these days lack.

The ending may lose some credibility, but the closing line won my heart over. As a whole, the movie isn't Oscar-worthy, but it's also more than just "good enough." It shows how traditional material can still have value when there are strong enough characters and performances to liven it up. These, along with a slick style, guide We Own The Night to a meaningful conclusion that's both satisfying and entertaining.



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