If popcorn represents the human emotions in “We Own the Night,” better buy two bags. It’s hard to imagine a new slant on a cops and robbers movie, and this film does include familiar elements of its genre. Yet, for me, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance elevated the movie to one I didn’t mind seeing twice.
Set in the late 1980s, this crime thriller features Phoenix as Bobby Green, manager of the El Caribe nightclub. Among the throngs of dancers, heavy buzzers, naked girls on the bar, and drug deals occurring faster than drink refills, Bobby is as blissful as Hugh Hefner in his own paradise. He shies away from the drugs, indulging instead in lovemaking with his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes).
Amada is the only one who knows his secret; Bobby is not a “Green” at all, but a “Grusinsky.” No one can know that his father Burt (Robert Duvall) is the chief of the New York City Police Department, or that his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) has just been promoted to Captain. Both men are members of the street-crimes unit who wear a patch on their uniform that reads, “We Own the Night.”
“We’re in a war, and sooner or later you’re going to have to choose us or them,” says his dad to Bobby when he shows up for his brother’s promotion ceremony. The cops suspect that Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), a leading drug supplier and part of the Russian mob, is working out of El Caribe. When they begin to question Bobby, who has not even seen his brother or father for months, he’s outraged.
Phoenix artfully accomplishes in a few short scenes what most actors would need an entire film to convey. Fueling Bobby’s outrage is a sibling rivalry about his father’s pride in Joseph, and anger that his dad can’t understand his other son is not a drug lord but just a guy who enjoys having fun in his nightclub.
The plot has elements of “The Godfather” and other crime family stories; but in between those cliche moments, writer/director James Gray splinters into some intense moments. What will happen when Bobby is arrested in his own club? Can Bobby’s friend Jumbo (Danny Hoch) fill his shoes? What does Amanda think of Bobby’s family of cops? Will Bobby and his brother ever be close again?
Gray seeks to answer these questions through a world shrouded by danger, suspicion and family disloyalty comprised of commonplace characters brought to life by exceptional actors. As far as veteran actors, Robert Duvall is up there with Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman.
Give Duvall a role, and he’ll transform a few lines into a note-worthy performance. He’s responsible for the delivery of some of the amusing quotes in the film: “You marry an ape, you don’t complain about the stench of bananas,” and “When you pee in your pants, you can only stay warm for so long.”
Although Wahlberg doesn’t seem to stand out much as “the good son,” it’s his understated portrayal of Joseph that paves the way for Duvall and Phoenix’s characters. Phoenix may not have the years of experience of the aforementioned seasoned actors, but he’s shown he can fill big shoes. He became Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” not only physically but in his vocals, and received an Oscar nomination for his performance. He earned another Oscar nomination as the corrupt and peculiar Commodus in “Gladiator.” Phoenix couldn’t have revealed Bobby’s struggles any better here if he had sliced open his arm to show us he would bleed.
“Joaquin reminds me of Montgomery Cliff or Al Pacino, someone who has got tons of internal conflict and is about to explode any second,” said Gray.
I would have preferred a different ending, but I believe “We Own the Night” will surely entertain fans of its cast as well as viewers who enjoy crime dramas - plus it includes one of the best car chases in a movie since “The French Connection” (1971).