**** out of *****
“We Own the Night” starts out with a montage of black and white photos depicting New York City cops during the 1980s, as they struggled to bring down drug lords who were turning the city into a crime and vice-ridden cesspool.
This preface provides a sobering bit of historical context, but “We Own the Night” isn’t really interested in historical context, sobering or otherwise. The film’s true ambition is entertainment. And, thanks to some inventive touches from writer/director James Gray, “We Own the Night” mostly succeeds.
The film begins by setting up the dynamic between the two Grusinsky brothers – Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joseph (Mark Wahlberg).
Bobby manages a nightclub called El Caribe, a place where drug lords gather to do business. Though he’s a user, Bobby doesn’t really care about the drug lords; he likes the power that comes from running the club.
Joseph, on the other hand, is a decorated cop who’s been put in charge of a narcotics unit that’s about to go after some of the people who are frequent customers at El Caribe. Joseph wants Bobby to keep an eye out for any shady business, but Bobby is stubborn and unreceptive.
Without giving too much away, something happens that makes Bobby reconsider his brother’s offer, and he decides to help the cops take down the drug lords.
From this point on, the film turns into an undercover cop story, as Bobby tries to ingratiate himself with a drug syndicate led by the brutal and vindictive Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov).
Undercover cop stories are set up for moments of great drama and suspense, and “We Own the Night” has both. Gray fills the movie with several suspenseful set pieces, including a car chase in the pouring rain that, because it adheres to realism as much as possible, outdoes the much-praised chases in the “Jason Bourne” movies.
Then, there’s a great scene where Bobby becomes temporarily deaf after a series of gunshots go off next to his head, and Gray simulates Bobby’s deafness by cutting out nearly all sound except for a persistent ringing.
But the film also contains some skillful quiet moments. Consider the scene where Bobby is instructed by one of Vadim’s men about how to act in front of Vadim. The camera slowly -almost imperceptibly – zooms in on Bobby’s face, and Phoenix reveals a man desperately trying to keep it together so he can do the right thing.
The performances by Phoenix and Robert Duvall (as Bobby and Joseph’s police chief father Burt) are well done, but the film doesn’t quite know what to do with Bobby’s girlfriend Amanda (Eva Mendes), who’s saddled with all the script’s most clichéd lines.
Despite this and an ending that’s a little too pat, “We Own the Night” is an adeptly made and entertaining crime drama.
Entertainment writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.