I love cop films. It’s one of my favorite genres. I respond instinctively to the films of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet, Brian De Palma and many others who have explored the time-honored traditions of cops, criminals, familial love, good and evil, and moral ambiguity. James Gray, the director of Little Odessa, The Yards, Two Lovers, and 2014’s criminally underrated The Immigrant, is one of my top directors to keep an eye on. He’s a New York filmmaker through and through, and while critics have been slightly cool to him on these shores, his reputation in Europe has cemented him as one of the most distinct voices in cinema working today. He loves the trappings and traditions of old-school American genre films, constantly showcasing ethically compromised lead characters, honest and corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, declining families, and hot-headed male characters. The Yards seemed to have been channeling The Godfather in its shadowy depiction of the bonds that bring families together, and how those same bonds and rip a family apart. Some of that same thematic ground is explored in We Own the Night, which is easily Gray’s most commercial picture to date, and while the film isn’t perfect, there is much to recommend in this stylish, dangerous, hot-blooded crime thriller. A simple story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law, We Own the Night is refreshingly un-self conscious and square; it’s a crime film that tells an A-to-B-to-C story that you’ve seen before but not through this prism. Joaquin Phoenix, in another blistering performance, is a nightclub manager named Bobby, whose top-cop father Burt (Robert Duvall, sage as always) has little use for. Eschewing the family calling of becoming a police officer, Bobby would rather swagger through a night club, blow a line coke off his girlfriend’s ass, and mix-it up with drunken clubbers. Bobby’s brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, well cast in these types of roles), is a hot-shot in the police force, making a name for himself as the leader of a strike team set to take down the Russian mobs who have started to take over the drug trade in the city. It just so happens that the club that Bobby manages is owned by the Russian mob, and it’s not long before Bobby is forced to choose sides. He can either work with the police in taking down the group of people that employ him, or subvert the police and his family by staying loyal to the gangsters. Mix in Eva Mendes as Bobby’s smoking hot girlfriend (the film’s opening scene is genuinely sexy and quite startling in its overt sexuality) and you’ve got the requisite ingredients for a gritty cop thriller, which is exactly what We Own the Night becomes.
Gray has structured his tale through three amazing set pieces — a coke-house raid/shootout, an astounding car-chase during a pounding rainstorm, and a near operatic climactic shootout set against the burning, extra-tall weeds of New York. Gray handles the various action sequences like a skilled vet (there’s more “action” in We Own the Night than in Little Odessa and The Yards put together). But it’s the tremendous car chase that warrants special praise. Shooting the entire sequence with a subjective camera and no artificial music, the audience only knows as much as Bobby during this harrowing chase, as the camera never leaves the back seat and front seat of the car. We peer through the front windshield as the wiper blades clear away the torrential downpour, allowing glimpses of a jack-knifing tractor-trailer truck and other vehicular destruction. With gangsters firing shotguns at Bobby’s car, the scene is all white-knuckles and sweaty palms. You’ll be even more amazed to know that all of the rain was created with computers, as the seamless blending of all of the different elements in this bravura sequence is simply astonishing. It truly is a car chase that you’ve never seen before. The shootout/raid that precedes the car chase is violent, gritty, and nasty–exactly what a shotgun fueled shoot-out would be. And the ending exudes a dreamy quality that ratchets up the tension to considerable effect. The film isn’t perfect. There’s one major plot development that’s a bit hard to swallow, and some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but never bad. The themes that We Own the Night explores are familiar yet thrilling; after all, when will stories about loyalty and deception ever feel new again? The story has an old-school feel to it, which may be the reason why by the end of the film, you may feel that all you’ve been watching is a standard issue cops and robbers actioner. But the conviction of the performances, especially that of Phoenix, help to conceal some of the story cracks with passion and energy. And one big surprise involving Wahlberg’s character was a welcome addition to the narrative. In the end, We Own the Night may be a tad predictable, but that fact takes nothing way from the overall entertainment value. Gray seems to take his time in between projects, but I’m really hoping his output remains steady. He has a laid-back, unfussy style with a clear understanding of character and plot mechanics. And what he lacks in originality during We Own the Night he more than makes up for with his vivid shooting style (the excellent, gritty cinematography is courtesy of the talented Joaquin Baca-Asay) and his unwavering dedication to making everything seem atmospherically alive and immediate. The 1980’s setting peppers the film with a seedy flavor that you don’t normally get a chance to see on screen. Rather than reinventing the genre with narrative tricks like The Departed or upping the style ante to the extreme the way Michael Mann’s Miami Vice did, We Own the Night is content to be a solid entry in a classic genre, a film that shares more in common with Sidney Lumet’s oeuvre than anything else. See it for Phoenix’s intensely animalistic performance and the directorial verve that Gray displays all throughout.